An American Dream, An Exile’s Nightmare

On a summer night in St Louis, Missouri, two immigrants from Uzbekistan held a banquet to celebrate the success of their company. They had fled the central Asian state after their authoritarian government massacred protesting civilians in 2005, and landed in a United States battered by recession. Undaunted, they learned English, studied business, and in 2010 started a trucking firm.

The company was successful, but the two Uzbek owners were not interested in glorifying their own achievements. They held a dinner to thank their workers – the truck drivers, some from Uzbekistan, who were rewarded with gifts, and the members of the St Louis business community who helped make their success possible.

In a suburban St Louis hotel, I saw the hope embodied in the American Dream – hard-working refugees who had achieved prosperity but put the well-being of their workers first; hard-working Midwestern Americans who treated Muslim immigrants with tolerance and respect.

But behind this dream was a nightmare. Bobir Choriyev, one of the co-founders of the company, is the brother of Bahodir Choriyev, leader of the pro-democracy Birdamlik (Solidarity) movement, one of the largest opposition movements in Uzbekistan. Bobir and Bahodir are among seven Choriyev brothers living in St Louis – an Uzbek family struggling to build a life in the US while working to bring democratic reform to their homeland. (Bobir's company does not fund any political movements, including Birdamlik.)

In the United States, the Choriyevs could be considered an immigrant success story. But in Uzbekistan, they are considered enemies of the state. The week he held the company event, Bobir learned that his father, 71-year-old Hasan Choriyev, had been arrested in Uzbekistan. It was not the first time Hasan had been targeted. In recent years, the Uzbek government had confiscated his property and interrogated him over his son's activities. But this was the first time Hasan had been sent to jail.

His crime? Being part of a family of political dissidents, safe in the US but vulnerable in Uzbekistan.

The plight of the Choriyev family speaks to the modern version of an old authoritarian tactic: punishing activists abroad by persecuting their relatives at home. In the digital age, exile has gone from a sentence of silence to a source of strength. Formerly isolated activists use the internet to communicate with other activists around the world and lend financial and moral support to their countrymen. With diasporas playing a greater role in facilitating political movements, dictatorships are struggling with how to control citizens who live beyond their legal purview.

One answer is to attack the loved ones they were forced to leave behind. Under the perverse dictates of authoritarianism, love becomes a liability. Loyalty becomes a lure. For families targeted, the consequences are devastating.

An accidental dissident charged with rape. While no rape charge should be ignored, it is highly doubtful that the ailing 71-year-old Hasan Choriyev, who has had his prostate removed, is physically capable of this act. The allegation seems designed to destroy the family's reputation, to denigrate their name in Uzbekistan and abroad.

Exile is love and loss – loss of a beloved homeland and one's potential role within it. But in authoritarian states, perhaps the greatest cruelty is connection. Family members become surrogates for absent "criminals". They are guilty by association, persecuted by mere presence. Exiles abroad can do little but watch and grieve.

In jail 'for no reason'a legal system long eroded, suspects rarely have the opportunity to have their case argued based on evidence. They are prosecuted on perception, when prosecuted at all. Sometimes they are jailed without trial.

Familial love is exploited by authoritarian states to attempt to control citizens' behaviour. Devastated by their father's incarceration, the Choriyevs nonetheless see his arrest as part of a broader problem, and themselves as part of a broader community. Though their lives in the US may be exceptional, in Uzbekistan they are like all other Uzbeks, vulnerable to the Uzbek government – its baseless charges, its cheap derision.

As Hasan Choriyev was arrested, and his sons celebrated a successful Uzbek-led business, Uzbek President Islam Karimov went on state television to make a statement about the laziness of Uzbeks working abroad.

"I call lazy people those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares," he said. "One feels disgusted with the fact that Uzbeks have to travel there for a piece of bread… The Uzbek nation's honour makes us different from others. Is not it better to die [than scrounge]?"

In Uzbekistan, hard-working labourers are deemed lazy. Citizens who seek to follow the constitution are labelled enemies of the state. Poets who speak of morality are deemed immoral. Businessmen who run successful businesses have their assets seized and plundered.

One can see this as a tragedy of wasted potential. And it is. But it also makes you wonder what the Uzbek people could accomplish, if virtues were not treated as crimes.