07/19/2010 02:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

From the American People? Prison and No Backup From the U.S. Government for Work on AIDS

When 30,000 professionals and representatives of multiple governments gather in Vienna for the International AIDS Conference this week, one person will not be there. Maksim Popov --a young doctor from the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan-- is in prison, sentenced to seven years hard labor for AIDS prevention work funded by the US, and for charges of fiscal mismanagement that observers say are clearly trumped up.

One hopes that Ambassador Eric Goosby, who leads the U.S. efforts on AIDS and the U.S. delegation to Vienna, will voice some badly needed public support for Popov and other AIDS workers who have done what is asked of them by the U.S. government, and in the process run afoul of their own.

More than 100 organizations have signed a petition expressing concern about the harsh sentence passed by Uzbekistan on the 29- year-old Popov. Dr. Popov's alleged offenses include disseminating "culturally inappropriate" AIDS education material (that is, publications acknowledging the existence of homosexuality) and handing out of clean needles to injecting drug users, which the Uzbek prosecutor termed "misuse of injection equipment."

In reality, the materials for which Popov was sentenced were produced and vetted by the United Nations, and distributed in multiple countries as part of U.S. HIV reduction efforts. The injection equipment was part and parcel of needle exchange, an approach whose efficacy is well-established to reduce HIV, and that the Uzbek government itself recognized as essential when it established 220 needle exchange points attached to State-run clinics across the country.

To anyone familiar with the situation, the Popov case is more about Uzbekistan's increasingly paranoid response to any form of independent association organized by its citizens, (especially those receiving international funds) than it is about HIV or the moral well being of the nation. Many AIDS organizations, seen as suspect as a result of their foreign support, have been closed in Uzbekistan, and their leaders pressured. But Dr. Popov's case is also about the dynamics when international donors encourage and incentivize young health professionals to organize NGOs in repressive societies, and then leave the staff alone to face the consequences.

AIDS work, like other development efforts funded by the United States, has always been about improving conditions on the ground on the one hand, and about emphasizing American values of openness and civil society engagement on the other. The intertwined nature of US AIDS work and US foreign policy is underscored by the fact that contractors are encouraged to ensure that everything funded by the State Department bears a two-by-two-inch, red, white and blue logo bearing the phrase "From the American People." In a country like Uzbekistan, that logo can become a target on the back of young professionals like Maksim Popov.

So where were the American people, and the US Agency for International Development, when Popov was charged and sentenced for distributing materials they gave him? According to observers, Popov's wife had to sell their house to pay for his attorney's fees, and received no support from the local embassy or the US State Department during his trial. The United Kingdom, which had also hired Popov for AIDS work, was similarly silent. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which emphasizes the importance of NGO engagement in the $43 million grant it gives to Uzbekistan and was cited in the court documents used to sentence Popov, also said and did nothing. Popov received no visits from ambassadors or international representatives during his prolonged pre-trial detention, in which he was allegedly subject to cruel and inhumane treatment, or after he was transferred to prison. His wife and young child are still struggling to survive, and have received no financial support. No foreign donor has subsequently issued a public statement on Popov's plight. The silence is all the more cruel given that these same international actors routinely tour non-governmental organizations like Izis, the one ran by Dr. Popov, and use stories of their successes to call for more funding back in their own capitals.

Uzbekistan, through criminalization of Popov, may make a radical of an ordinary health professional. Popov was a young psychologist trying to square his knowledge of good HIV prevention with his professional practice, and saw himself neither as an AIDS or human rights activist. A recently published Russian language account by a friend writing anonymously describes Maksim as frightened and asking for company when the police demanded the names of his needle exchange clients. At the police interrogation, though, the friend described how Maksim held his fear in check and instead provided rational explanations for why breaching confidentiality would break the trust that permitted him to reach drug users in need of help.

USAID, DFID, and other international donors should engage in a similar review of basic moral principles. Foreign funded organizations run by idealistic young professionals quickly raise suspicion from repressive governments. When the US, the UK, or the Global Fund support NGOs to take on AIDS education, the contracts should be two-way agreements--you do the HIV prevention, and we watch your back and help protect you from those who might be angered by your taking our money and doing a good job. Instead, months after Maksim's arrest, the U.S. State Department still advises that it is "following the case closely"--no doubt trying to gauge whether raising a forceful argument about Maksim might endanger other American interests such as the use of Uzbekistan military bases in the war against Afghanistan.

This kind of diplomatic double-talk and do-nothingness is unconscionable. The US, the UK, and the Global Fund should be speaking with one voice in Vienna to urge freedom for Popov and to reassure other AIDS workers that if foreign funded AIDS work gets them in political hot water, the donors will be there to help protect them. Otherwise, a contract "from the American people," becomes as tragic and empty as the offices of Maksim Popov's organization and others closed by governments that would rather HIV, and people like Maksim, just went away.

Richard Elovich, PhD, is an HIV expert who has worked on US- and UN-funded projects in Central Asia.