Bobomurod Abdullayev was a decent enough sports reporter, but he was a really good politics blogger. Household-name good. Getting-things-done good. So good that he lived in fear of government agents showing up to take him away. For most of the past two decades, Abdullayev kept this second beat a secret from even his wife and kids. Under his own name, he wrote jovial columns on soccer matches and posted YouTube videos of himself singing folk songs. But when he clicked over to a different tab, he became Usman Haqnazarov, the whistleblower who shook Uzbekistan.
Abdullayev’s homeland, a landlocked former Soviet republic between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, is best known for its cotton, natural gas, and autocracy. Islam Karimov, a member of the Soviet Politburo, simply kept running the country after it declared its independence from the USSR three decades ago. The local KGB became the Uzbek secret services, and President Karimov continued to rule brutally for another quarter-century. His secret services rooted out, tortured, and often killed enemies, real and imagined. It barred foreign media and kept the state’s approved press outlets closely in line. However, one person it couldn’t seem to silence was the mysterious Haqnazarov. Under this pseudonym—a name that means “God’s all-seeing eye”—Abdullayev wrote juicy posts in extreme detail. He called out high-ranking politicians and other public figures he said had stolen millions of dollars in public funds. These public figures included secret services officials and the president’s daughter.
Over a decade, the Haqnazarov reports helped trigger international investigations and the seizure of almost $1 billion in what US law enforcement officials say were ill-gotten gains. A prominent Uzbek journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, stated that, from the beginning, the posts were read with outrage in the upper echelons of Karimov’s government. Although Haqnazarov became something of a folk hero, Abdullayev spent his nights terrified that his true identity would be exposed. “I had been scared of that day for a long time,” he says. To avoid being traced, he’d concealed his identity from some of his closest sources and made sure not to post from his own home.
In 2017, the year after the president died and his longtime No. 2 took over, Abdullayev’s luck ran out. While walking to the local mechanic to pick up his car, two men grabbed him by the arms, forced him into the back of their car, and pulled a black bag over his head. He was charged with sedition and conspiracy to commit treason and, he says, tortured by the special services. He says they beat him, left him handcuffed and hanging from the ceiling, and threatened to rape him with a rubber club. (At trial, the judge in his case said that medical experts couldn’t confirm torture.) Abdullayev was acquitted at trial but sentenced to pay 20% of his earnings to the state for three years.
Public outcry, and Karimov’s death, helped keep Abdullayev alive and secure his release within about six months. But even after he was freed, the regime offered few illusions about his long-term safety. State corruption in Uzbekistan remains pervasive, law enforcement still regularly uses torture to investigate crimes, and, despite press reforms, both foreign and domestic journalists continue to be harassed by the security services, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House. Early last year, Abdullayev fled the country. He’s since taken up residence in Berlin, where he’s been watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine—worried, he says, that his home government might tilt Vladimir Putin’s way. On a new YouTube channel called Fakt va Fikr (Fact and Opinion), he speaks out in favor of free speech and against the so-called New Constitution, a set of amendments proposed by the regime that he argues would concentrate even more power in the hands of the executive. “I focus on the systemic problems in Uzbekistan,” he says. “Nothing will really change if the system and the constitution do not change.”
These YouTube videos can take on a pox-on-both-houses air unusual for a man who’s spent half his life as an enemy of the state, and some critics say they’re muddying Abdullayev’s legacy. Others say it was muddy all along. His blog posts as Haqnazarov were prone to exaggeration and the occasional blunder. “His work is fiction,” says Umida Niyazova, an activist from the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights. “It’s no good for Uzbekistan.”
Abdullayev doesn’t deny that he often attributed direct quotes to people he never spoke with and wrote as if he were inside the president’s head. “I wanted the secret services to think I was someone in their inner circle,” he says, and for a while, at least, that helped throw the authorities off his trail. Besides, he argues, if he managed to scare the government into behaving a little less badly, then surely those were the whitest of lies. As for criticizing the opposition and the regime, he says he’s merely speaking truth to power. Nonetheless, Abdullayev’s case exemplifies the trouble with truth in the era of disinformation: If we can’t take a whistleblower literally, what is he really saying?
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Photographer: Nora Hollstein for Bloomberg Businessweek