The Strange World of the Special Tribunal For Lebanon

A very expensive court prosecutes spectral defendants…

“Because missiles can fly through windows, the courtroom is windowless.” So reports Ronen Bergman in “The Hezbollah Connection,” an epic 8,000-word dispatch from The New York Times Magazine last year. The courtroom in question belongs to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a United Nations-backed entity in The Hague, Netherlands. The STL is tasked with trying in absentia five Hezbollah members accused of orchestrating the 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri along with 21 others in a massive blast in Beirut. More than a decade later, as the tribunal fumbles its way toward ostensible justice from the depths of its windowless chambers, one can’t help but begin to question how any disgruntled party in Lebanon would go about firing missiles at a Netherlands courtroom 2,000 miles away.

Earlier this year in Beirut, I spoke with members of several STL defense teams who were in town interviewing “witnesses” for the tribunal. These particular witnesses were officials from Lebanese mobile phone companies, as the prosecutors’ case is in large part based on the analysis of enormous quantities of mobile phone logs, which are said to point to the five Hezbollah men. Much of the STL’s work thus consists of the endless examination of telecom information using unproven methods of co-location and link analysis. Indeed, as lawyer Philippe Larochelle—who has since resigned from his position as co-counsel for defendant Hussein Hassan Oneissi—put it to me: it’s essentially the case that “the accused are phones.”

The trial of the phones kicked off in The Hague in January 2014, following all manner of delays and detours. In one rather lengthy detour, from 2005-2009, four Lebanese generals were imprisoned without charge thanks to a recommendation by initial UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who was operating on a defective theory that the generals had conspired with the Syrian government to assassinate Hariri. Once a sufficient international stink had been made over the wrongful imprisonment and the generals had finally been freed, the STL fixed its attention solely on Hezbollah.

As the New York Times sees it, the STL is “necessary simply because of Hezbollah’s unique role in Lebanon and the world: Although the group is classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, it is also a popular political party in Lebanon, and therefore it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for Lebanon or any other single nation to provide an appropriate venue for its prosecution.”

But “necessary” is an odd way of describing the STL to begin with. The tribunal’s singular nature makes it an unusual international priority. For one thing, it’s expensive; some half a billion dollars had already been spent as of February 2015—with Lebanon in charge of 49 percent of the bill. This is hardly small change in a country plagued by widespread poverty and a dearth of government services. During my most recent visit to Tyre, Lebanon’s fourth-largest city (located twenty minutes from the border with Israel), the area was receiving as little as two hours of government-supplied electricity per day. A November 2014 article in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper noted that the country had just managed to fork over $36 million “in dues” to the STL despite “financial troubles, as the [Lebanese] economy reels from the impact of a massive refugee influx from Syria and ongoing security problems.” The previous December, meanwhile, the U.S. State Department issued a press statement applauding “Lebanon’s decision to fulfill its 2013 funding obligations” to the STL and emphasizing that the United States, too, had “provided strong financial support to the Tribunal since its inception, and we will continue to do so.”

Photos courtesy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Photos courtesy of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Yet the absence of any actual defendants gives the STL an air of the farcical. Indeed, it is the first international trial in absentia  since Nuremberg. In Beirut, defense lawyer Larochelle remarked to me that having worked more than two years for the STL without ever seeing the person whose “interests” he was supposed to be representing had taken its toll on his motivation. A lawyer can find it dispiriting to defend an invisible client. Any eventual conviction by the “mock court,” Larochelle said, would be “imperfect” in light of the reality that “the accused are not there”—and that the most the prosecutors could hope for was “a conviction for five ghosts.” Given the specifics, imperfect would seem something of a wry understatement.

One might think that the May 2016 assassination in Syria of one of the defendants, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, would also have put the operation in a pickle. (It wasn’t, however, unexpected: when I spoke to a member of the defense team in Beirut several months prior to the assassination, he claimed there was a good chance Badreddine would be killed—either before or after the verdict—by the Mossad, CIA, or some other interested party.) But so far, the tribunal appears undeterred. Following Badreddine’s death, the STL swiftly took to Twitter to assure the world that it remained “committed to fulfill its mandate with the highest standards of international justice.” Granted, a dead Badreddine is no less present at the proceedings than he was before.

The United States, for one, has long been insistent on seeing things through at the STL, regardless of the court’s eccentricities. In the aforementioned press statement, the State Department condemns “those responsible for reprehensible and destabilizing acts of violence in Lebanon,” lamenting that, “for too long, Lebanon has suffered from a culture of impunity for those who use murder and terror to promote their political agenda against the interests of the Lebanese people.” A lofty promise is put forth: “The Tribunal, working with the Government of Lebanon, will help end this impunity by providing a transparent, fair process to determine responsibility for the terrorist attack that killed former Prime Minister Hariri and scores of others.”

But the only obvious transparency on display at the STL is the transparent selectivity of its justice. No other political assassination—a tradition that has defined the Lebanese landscape for decades, both before and after Hariri’s demise—has merited such attention. And as a Beirut-based criminal justice analyst pointed out to me, the post-cold war crop of international tribunals—for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and so on—have all dealt with genocide and crimes against humanity rather than crimes against individuals.

The tribunal’s mandate also depends on the highly contested nature of the word “terrorism.” The STL defines itself as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” In these groundbreaking dealings, the STL notes, it “applies the Lebanese legal definition of terrorism, of which an element is the use of means that are ‘liable to create a public danger.’” As usual, the word “terrorism” is so broad as to be almost entirely empty of meaning, making its application open to extreme subjectivity.

One of the most blatant hypocrisies in the international community’s stance against “terrorism” is in its lack of application to more-than-eligible actions by the United States and Israel. Hezbollah’s very raison d’être, it bears mentioning, lies in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, an affair that killed an estimated 20,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians. After occupying south Lebanon for no fewer than 22 years and subjecting the country to intermittent bouts of slaughter, the Israeli military returned in 2006 to decimate its northern neighbor and wipe out approximately 1,200 lives, again mainly civilian. In regularly flattening sections of Lebanon, Israel would appear to have the “creation of public danger” down to an art. But Israel’s maneuvers have not yet proven special enough for a Special Tribunal.

In fact, Hezbollah has accused Israel itself of carrying out the Hariri assassination, though the STL has categorically refused to consider the possibility. Arguably, the Israeli state did possess not only the technical sophistication to orchestrate the murder but also sufficient motivations. After all, the direct outcome of the assassination—which has from the get-go been blamed on varying combinations of Syria and Hezbollah—was the Syrians’ departure from Lebanon, where they had maintained an occupying presence since being summoned by Christian forces shortly after the launch of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. The termination of the Syrian occupation translated into big points for Israel, which had been forcibly evicted from its own occupation in 2000 by the Hezbollah-led resistance movement—an affront the Israeli government still hasn’t managed to get over.

“Excessive fixation with the killing of the multibillionaire Hariri has tended to distract from the fairly pervasive injustice suffered by much of the rest of the Lebanese population…”

The United States’ own insistence on pursuing the prosecution solidifies the double standard. After all, it was none other than the U.S. that was rush-shipping bombs to the Israeli military in 2006 while it engaged in slaughtering Lebanese children. The one-way moral reasoning once again raises the question of just who deserves the denomination of foreign terrorist organization. The United States has never faced international legal action for its various violent incursions abroad, and has freely supported the assassination of heads of state from Patrice Lumumba in the Congo to Salvador Allende in Chile. In 2011, a U.S. drone was directly involved in the killing of Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, plunging the country further into a ruinous civil war. Yet strangely, Hezbollah faces the only international terrorism tribunal ever constituted. In The Hague, phone lines are being put on trial for the killing of a Lebanese superbillionaire, while U.S. politicians have not once been summonsed to answer for the destruction of Iraq.

The proceedings are hopelessly hypocritical in other ways. The “Government of Lebanon” that has been assigned the job of helping to end “impunity” is itself largely comprised of sectarian warlords hailing from the civil war era. Those warlords have remained entrenched in power despite being responsible for untold quantities of spilled blood. There’s a lot to be said for impunity.

There’s also something to be said for social class, it seems. The excessive fixation with the killing of Hariri has tended to distract from the fairly pervasive injustice suffered by much of the rest of the Lebanese population. Unsurprisingly, a not insignificant amount of suffering is attributable to aforementioned warlords. As Lebanese criminal justice expert Dr. Omar Nashabe remarks in a 2012 paper published by the American University of Beirut, “families of thousands of persons who disappeared during the [Lebanese] civil war question the creation of the STL to investigate the killings of a few elites with no serious investigations into the fate of their [own] relatives.”


There are other thorny geopolitical implications to the tribunal’s work, too. It’s worth reviewing the words of Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who in a leaked American diplomatic cable from 2006 is quoted as characterizing the tribunal as “our best weapon against the Syrians.”

Jumblatt is a civil war relic whose public positions have been, at best, a jumble of schizophrenic self-contradiction. Despite opposing the invasion of Iraq at the time it occurred, Jumblatt is quoted in a book by George W. Bush as retrospectively praising the invasion as equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Note that, since the invasion quickly turned to disaster, most observers would have revised their opinions in the opposite direction.) Jumblatt additionally appeared in a 2007 issue of The New Yorker, advising then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on how to undermine Syria’s Bashar al-Assad so as to disrupt “the basic link between Iran and Lebanon.”

Fast forward to 2015, when Jumblatt himself testified in The Hague, as one of a lineup of Lebanese politicians trotted before the STL to aid the battle against “impunity.” No matter that, like many of his colleagues, Jumblatt is guilty of ethnic cleansing and other misconduct dating from the civil war period. According to the Daily Star, the Druze leader had at the outset “personally lobbied world leaders to finance the [Hariri] tribunal” but had since had a change of heart:

At a meeting with the outgoing Russian ambassador to Lebanon in 2010, Jumblatt said he wished the tribunal had never been established. ‘We got the tribunal, but I wish we did not,’ Jumblatt said… ‘The aim of [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 1559 and the 2006 War [with Israel] was to disarm the Resistance [Hezbollah]. When this failed, they resorted to [attempting to use] the STL’s indictment [to carry out this goal] (rampant brackets in original).

Jumblatt’s own psychological oscillations aside, the STL has since become an even better “best weapon against the Syrians” and affiliated entities on account of the war raging in Syria and efforts to discredit select tribunal participants.

The more dysfunctional the international community is, the more dysfunctional the justice.

Now that one of the “ghost” defendants,  Badreddine, has definitively crossed over, it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds for the defense attorneys who represent the deceased man’s remaining earthly “interests.” But however things ultimately shape up in The Hague, it seems there is plenty of job security to be had in the tribunal industry; as the Times notes, many of the judges and lawyers involved in the STL “have made a career of serving in such international tribunals.” The U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, for example, has now been operating continuously for over twenty years, and defendants quite literally grow old as they wait for their trials to conclude.

Philippe Larochelle, himself a veteran of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court, cast as the STL’s most distinguishing characteristic the sheer amount of money and resources being thrown at the project. Larochelle suggests, with characteristic understatement, that the STL’s lucrative employment opportunities raised the question of “to what extent” participants were being “paid to validate a dubious process.”

He describes the court as the “Dubai or Qatar of tribunals.” On its sleek website, the STL offers free downloads of high-quality professional photographs of its gleaming facilities, encouraging the media to disseminate them. There is, however, one area in which the STL has attempted to pinch pennies: the court’s website specifies that “interns will not receive remuneration for their work [and] will cover the travel and living costs in the Netherlands.”

As the funds keep flowing in, the folly and general arbitrariness of the result is readily apparent. Even The New York Times acknowledged that “the prosecution has produced no direct evidence,” an indication that the court “is also likely to establish new precedents in murder convictions on the basis of circumstantial evidence.”

STL aficionados might have hoped for at least a few incidents of compelling testimony to redeem the court’s mission and give it an aura of useful purpose. But these, too, have been few and far between. Instead, the most crucial witnesses have lapsed into contradiction and recantation. In December, for example, a former bodyguard for “Sami Issa”—said to be the alter-ego of now-nonexistent defendant Mustafa Badreddine—positively identified Issa/Badreddine in two photographs and then backpedaled. The Daily Star summed up the ensuing scene:

Bizarrely, he testified that the man in the photograph was wearing eyeglasses, comparing them to Issa’s. Though the photo was of poor quality, the person depicted did not appear to be wearing any.

But the money is certainly being spent. The Times noted some of the results:

The tribunal’s budget makes it possible for lawyers to present their graphic exhibits in the clearest possible manner. During some hearings, prosecutors place impressively accurate before-and-after models of the scene of the bombing on an enormous table at the center of the room. The model makers, who spent weeks constructing them, put special emphasis on precisely reproducing the destruction, even the damage to trees.

As is well known in criminal justice circles, leaf disfiguration patterns hold the key to any murder mystery.

All of this may be slightly unfair to the STL, though. After all, there may be little hope for any venue dedicated to the pursuit of “international justice.” As Larochelle pointed out to me, it’s an ideal that is categorically impossible, given that it can’t be disentangled from the (inevitably politicized) international community itself. As he noted, “The more dysfunctional the international community is, the more dysfunctional the justice.”

Two days prior to the announcement of Badreddine’s demise, I subjected myself to a brief but excruciating viewing of STL courtroom proceedings, which are transmitted with a thirty-minute delay on the STL website. During the segment I watched, a female prosecutor examined a protected witness—a representative of a telecommunications company in Lebanon. The witness’s protected status meant that the screen went blank each time he spoke, and his voice was mutated into a cross between Darth Vader, Optimus Prime, and the guy who narrates movie previews. The prosecutor spent most of her own screen time reading to the court the scintillating text of Lebanese mobile network subscription agreement forms.

Watching justice plod along into eternity at the STL, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in the courtroom secretly longed for a window. Or perhaps even a missile.

Killing a Shadow

A “special terrorist” is killed, but remains a mystery…

Today, May 13, Israel received a very slightly belated birthday present. Hezbollah announced that Mustafa Amine Badreddine, one of the organization’s top commanders, had been killed in Syria earlier this week.

Throughout the day, blame for the killing was intermittently directed at Israel. Haaretz claimed that “[i]nitial reports blamed Israel for the attack, but signs show that Israel was not responsible for Badreddine’s death.” Al Jazeera reported that the Israeli military had declined to comment on Hezbollah’s allegations concerning its guilt. The Guardian diplomatically put it like this: “Leading Hezbollah commander and key Israel target killed in Syria.”

“Key Israel target,” of course, translates into joint U.S.-Israeli nemesis. According to the sages of the U.S. State Department, Badreddine belonged to that exclusive club known as the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). The designation formerly included Badreddine’s brother-in-law Imad Mughniyah—assassinated in a collaborative CIA-Mossad operation in Damascus in 2008—as well as Samir Kuntar, victim of an Israeli airstrike on Syria in December. Badreddine was rumored to have been the target of a previous Israeli airstrike that killed Mughniyah’s son, among others.

Compounding his SDGT status, Badreddine is one of five Hezbollah members currently being tried in absentia in The Hague by a bizarre, United Nations-backed entity called the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—incidentally the subject of my article for the forthcoming edition of Current Affairs.

The tribunal was created with the ostensible purpose of bringing to justice the murderers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, killed along with 21 others in a massive blast in 2005. Ever since the groundwork was laid for the judicial operation, however, its rather transparent goals have oscillated between sticking it to Syria, sticking it to Hezbollah, and sticking it to Hezbollah and Syria.

The STL is blazing all sorts of trails. In addition to being the first international trial in absentia since Nuremberg, the court advertises itself on its official website as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” Terrorism is defined in part as “something liable to create a public danger”—in other words, pretty much everything Israel has ever done in the country, unless you regard massacres of civilians and the saturation of Lebanese territory with unexploded cluster munitions as public safety maneuvers.

Israel, it bears mentioning, is officially exempt from suspicion in the Hariri assassination despite having benefited substantially from its direct outcome: the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon.

Now that one of the defendants has ceased to exist, it remains to be seen how the STL will proceed. Since the trial is already in absentia, it may not be too difficult to tack on a post-mortem aspect.

But who, exactly, was Mustafa Amine Badreddine? The standard answer is that nobody really knows. An STL defense lawyer representing the “interests” of Badreddine described him to me as a “shadow,” someone around whom there was so much mystery that you could never be sure who the real Badreddine was.

The Hezbollah Connection,” a 2015 wannabe tour-de-force authored by Israeli military analyst Ronen Bergman for The New York Times, notes that Badreddine’s “name appears on very few Lebanese documents” and that he “appears to have been living a second life under the name Sami Issa.” In the course of the 8,000-word article Bergman apparently does not find space to question the guilty verdict on Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, The Daily Beast—ever the authoritative source on the Middle East and everything else in life—took the liberty last summer of publishing an exposé on Badreddine titled: “Meet the Pyromaniac Playboy Leading Hezbollah’s Fight in Syria.”

Of course, we don’t actually get to meet Badreddine—an opportunity that was also obviously unavailable to the article’s author, Alex Rowell, who nonetheless faithfully reproduces “the words of STL prosecutor Graeme Cameron,” of which there are many:

“According to Cameron, as ‘Issa,’ Badreddine was ‘the de facto, but not the registered owner of a jewelry business with several branches in Beirut. He [had] an apartment in [the Lebanese coastal town of] Jounieh, registered in the name of another, and a boat registered and insured in the name of another. He drove an expensive Mercedes automobile which was not registered in his name. He had several concurrent girlfriends and was seen regularly in restaurants and cafes socializing with his friends.’”

Following bombardment by these and other details, we are treated to the minor disclaimer: “(The prosecution had not responded at the time of publication to an inquiry by The Daily Beast as to how exactly it came into this knowledge.)”

To be sure, this is not the only attempt to discredit Hezbollah by portraying its members as licentious frauds. Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, shamelessly published an op-ed earlier this year on his own version of the martyrdom of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s son Hadi, killed by the Israeli army in 1997.

In Kedar’s imaginary world, the young man “was killed in a fight that broke out between partygoers in a Beirut nightclub.” Lest we miss the point of this teaching: “A nightclub is the last place in the world that Nasrallah would want his son to even have entered. Liquor flows like water in these nightspots and Islam’s high moral standards are not in evidence.” The summary of the op-ed goes as far as to pose the existential question: “Could embarrassing revelations about the death of Hassan Nasrallah’s son put an end to his leadership of Hezbollah?”

Were the world a remotely just place, however, Kedar himself would have far more existential questions to deal with. Some of them might concern the fact that he has publicly advocated for mass rape as a deterrent to terrorism.

As for the late Badreddine’s brew of Specially Designated Global Terrorism, Hezbollah’s statement today noted that he “took part in most of the operations of the Islamic resistance since 1982.” This was the year of Hezbollah’s birth—the result of an Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed some 20,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians.

Such activity would also seem worthy of a “special designation,” as would numerous other special cases over the years: the Israeli-backed slaughter of up to several thousand civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila; Israel’s drone-assisted massacre of more than one hundred civilians sheltering at a United Nations compound in Qana; the elimination of eighty bystanders in a failed CIA assassination attempt of Shia cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah; mass-scale destruction of people and property thanks to rush shipments of U.S. weaponry to Israel.

In terms of Global Terrorism, Badreddine’s shadow couldn’t hold a candle to the competition.

My Police State Vacation

A tour through the lighter side of the sometimes brutal U.S.-allied nation…

In the customs line at Tashkent International Airport, a digital screen positioned above the X-ray machine informs visitors to Uzbekistan of items that are prohibited in the interest of peace and security. Narcotics are first, followed by materials encouraging religious extremism, fundamentalism, or separatism. When I recently visited the Central Asian nation, memorably referred to by pizza magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” I was carrying none of the above.

I was, however, slightly concerned that my profession itself might not be on the list of state-approved activities—as suggested, perhaps, by the fact that said state plays host to the world’s two longest imprisoned journalists.

Fortunately, not being Uzbek myself meant I’d be spared the rehabilitative services the government reserves for its in-house opposition. Even among torture-states, Uzbekistan has achieved some impressive levels of brutality. Treatments have ranged from having suspected dissidents boiled to death to freezing them in icy cells to simple “asphyxiation with a gas mask,” as the U.S. State Department noted in 2001, shortly before it appointed Uzbekistan one of its key BFFs in the War on Terror.

But I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for journalistic purposes; I would not be investigating its various unbecoming practices, such as the forced labor in its cotton fields or its forced sterilization of women. Nor, curious as I may have been, did I intend to look into the story of permanent president Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, a Harvard University alumna whose career as a diplomat-cum-pop diva-cum-fashion designer-cum-racketeer has for the moment ended in house arrest.

Instead, my itinerary centered around viewing pretty monuments and drinking cheap vodka, and I didn’t want this disrupted by any official misreading of my intentions. For that reason I had exercised borderline paranoia when applying for my letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in August—a document that would supposedly facilitate my acquisition of an Uzbek visa. Required to provide a letter from my employer as part of the LOI application process, I tasked my mother with fabricating a temporary identity for me as a client services and marketing liaison in the innocuous business of rental property management in Spain. (Having failed to adequately rehearse this exotic new title, I subsequently went with the deer-in-headlights option whenever any Uzbek asked what my job was.)

Armed with my LOI, I proceeded to the consulate general of Uzbekistan in Istanbul early one morning in September to collect my visa. I had parked myself in the south of Turkey for a few weeks in between trips to Iran and Lebanon and had arranged to fly to Istanbul for only a single day. I began to lose hope when calls to the consulate in the days preceding my flight produced this information: the office was in the middle of relocating, but nobody could recall the new address.

Luckily, a last-minute intervention by a Turkish friend resolved the matter—until I handed over my paperwork at the new Istanbul office and was told I could retrieve the visa in two days. Thus commenced a five-hour period of pathetic and hyperventilated entreaties to the consular staff, who eventually took pity on me and sent me on my way, 160-dollar visa in tow.

When I finally arrived to Tashkent on October 20, I cleared customs without issue. My cab driver, although charging me possibly half the average monthly Uzbek salary to transport me to my hotel, kindly did me the favor of exchanging my dollars for me at the black market rate, which at the time was more than twice the official one. He parked on the side of the road, disappeared into an alley, and reappeared with a black plastic bag teeming with 5,000-som notes, each of them the equivalent of less than a dollar on the black market.

My hotel had the appearance of a cheerier version of a Soviet concrete block (until the sun stopped shining), and a sign in the lobby courteously informed guests that we were subject not only to continuous video surveillance, but audio, as well. Reassured, I headed out to explore the wide, tree-lined boulevards of the Uzbek capital and quickly learned a valuable local survival tip: Never assume that pedestrian walk signals and traffic lights are coordinated.

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At a busy outdoor market, I bought a giant slab of onion bread from a woman with a wheelbarrow and gleefully set about calculating how many billions more slabs of onion bread my bag of som would buy. I made a note to purchase ceramics and sequined leggings with zippers on them prior to departing the country. I visited numerous parks and squares, among them one dedicated to the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, whose claims to fame include having been born in the fourteenth century in territory that is now Uzbekistan and having casually engaged in mass decapitations. Tamerlane’s prominent spot in the center of Tashkent had previously been occupied by a statue of Karl Marx, who was ousted during the de-Sovietization campaign.

The Tashkent metro system, meanwhile, was an attraction unto itself, with each station boasting its own unique décor. The styles ranged from elegant to discothequey to, for example, the Kosmonavtlar station, the walls of which featured large renderings of cosmonauts in space gear against a backdrop of decreasing shades of blue.

My excursions on the subway brought me into contact with a mainstay of the Uzbek landscape: the police. Generally positioned at both the street entrance to each subway stop and at the turnstiles underground, they looked in bags, waved metal detectors, and never failed to request my passport as well as the slip of paper from the hotel certifying that my presence in the country had been registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The novelty of this process wore off after the first several instances. On a certain occasion the slip was deemed insufficient and one of three police officers present went off to phone the hotel while the other two endeavored to establish, in pidgin English, why a woman of my age had not yet reproduced. On the subway platforms, station guards resembling flight attendants thwarted my attempt to photograph the cosmonauts.

Following two nights in Tashkent I took the train to the ancient Silk Road gem of Samarkand, less than four hours away. In my second-class seat next to an old woman with an oversized bottle of soda and an apple that she diligently polished and gave to me, I learned that A) it was possible to half-communicate with many Uzbeks in Turkish, and B) there are people in this world with tattooed unibrows.

My bed and breakfast in Samarkand was located a stone’s throw from the mausoleum of Tamerlane, at which I spent much time staring as though on some pleasant hallucinogen. The rest of the town elicited the same effect. I won’t feign any intimacy with the architectural lexicon, but I can tell you there were mosques, domes, glazed tiles, mosaics, and lots of blue and turquoise. My early-morning solo tour of Registan Square—an otherworldly complex of madrassas and courtyards to which I gained off-hours access via a bribe to the policeman on duty—was interrupted only when that same policeman accosted me in a corner and asked me to exchange dollars for him.

A bit outside the city were the remains of the observatory built by the fifteenth-century ruler-astronomer Ulugbek. At the accompanying museum was a photograph of schoolchildren visiting the place, with a quote from Islam Karimov helpfully translated into English: “Our children should be more stronger, better educated, wiser and certainly more happy than we are.” Indeed, Karimov’s own contributions to the youth happiness quotient in Uzbekistan are second to none; what kid wouldn’t love to participate in slave labor during the annual cotton harvest? (Granted, international pressure has reportedly caused the Uzbek regime to curtail its practice of dispatching of children into the cotton fields. They’re still available for work in other fields, but the cotton mobilization now mainly targets doctors, teachers, older students, and other people who clearly have nothing else to do with their time.)

At Samarkand’s Siab Bazaar, I acquired three different kinds of almonds plus one of the more ingenious inventions of our time: an entirely plastic mini-corkscrew gifted to me by the proprietor of a liquor shop who was apparently moved by my disproportionate reaction to it. I felt guilty at having cost him this little treasure—a godsend for anyone trying to open duty free wine in an airport bathroom—before realizing that every bottle of wine was sold with a mini-corkscrew attached.

Negotiating in Turkish, I obtained a bottle of vodka for four dollars (one of the pricier options) and a bottle of Uzbek wine for a dollar and a half, which the man assured me was not sweet (it was). The wine and corkscrew came with me on my excursion to the local cemetery, where photographic reproductions of the deceased were emblazoned on tombstones of varying shapes and sizes. Female workers with buckets of water cleaned the graves and chatted, Uzbek visitors strolled about in sparkly two-piece sets, and I pondered what everyone in Uzbekistan must have done prior to the invention of the sequin.


The graveyard turned out to be more expansive than I thought, and three-fourths of a bottle of wine later—politely concealed in a water bottle—I was lost. Fortunately, as there was still one-fourth remaining, there was no cause for alarm.

When I eventually extricated myself, I visited the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a strip of exquisite mausoleums abutting the graveyard where the list of rules in English warned that it was a “sin” to beg the saints for forgiveness during the visit, to make a sacrifice, or to leave money on the tombs. The last of these rules, at least, had been wantonly violated, and a man made periodic rounds to collect the accumulated bills.

After Samarkand it was back on the train to Bukhara, the next Silk Road outpost, where I engaged in similar architectural gawking and ended up at the impromptu birthday party of a Tajik Uzbek named Sharif, who called me “Beeline” and couldn’t figure out why I was named after a Russian mobile phone company. The encounter began on the rundown patio of a small restaurant not far from Bukhara’s massive fortress, where Sharif and companions invited me to join their table for tea and a snack. The snack evolved into fish and shashlik—skewered meat—and what was meant to be one bottle of birthday vodka quickly multiplied into four, while the number of vodka drinkers remained the same (three). I was assisted in my attempt to initiate an impromptu dance party on the patio by Sharif’s taxi driver friend, who blasted tunes like “In The Army Now” from his cab. He used that same cab to cart me back to my hotel when by 5 p.m. I had become largely unresponsive to environmental stimuli.

Had I wanted to continue my Silk Road tour, I would have proceeded west toward the Kyzylkum desert and the city of Khiva. Instead, I took a seven-hour train ride back to Tashkent and then a seven-hour shared taxi ride further east to the city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. As I was the only female in the car, I got the front seat; this was unfortunate for the man in the back, whose incessant snacking while on winding mountain passes resulted in our having to make several vomit breaks. Other stops took place at government checkpoints, where my passport and I were hauled out for inspection, and at roadside shacks selling warm bread, balls of tooth-shatteringly hard cheese, and other crucial survival items.

I also became acquainted with Uzbek gas station etiquette, whereby all passengers alight from the vehicle outside the station entrance and are retrieved at the exit. After noting the presence of enormous methane gas cylinders in the trunks of cars, I wondered if the routine was simply meant to minimize collateral damage in the event of an explosion.

Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Andijan is known for its more recent history—and one incident in particular. In 2005, Uzbek security forces in Babur Square opened fire on demonstrators, the vast majority of them unarmed, who were protesting general injustice and specifically the arrest of 23 local businessmen on charges of Islamic extremism. The death count, according to the government, was 187. According to others,  it was up to a thousand. Since then, the state has changed its mind and made it clear that the Andijan massacre was Something That Didn’t Happen.

I arrived at my hotel, the Vella Elegant, to find that it was smack in front of a square organized around a fountain and a horse-mounted statue of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty who, like Tamerlane, had catapulted into the realm of Uzbek stardom following the Soviet collapse. This was clearly Babur Square, I told myself, and I set about having deep and ironic thoughts re: the Uzbek wedding parties now being happily photographed in front of the fountain.

After I had inspected the square from every angle, I went to the bread market, overdosed on its wares, and explored a street teeming with shops specializing in U.S. Green Card application photos. At a bookstore I found posters of a semi-smiling President Karimov and posters teaching children the English words for professions like “driver” and “militarian.” I walked more than an hour to the old part of town and was force-fed more bread along the way by someone overjoyed to hear I was American.

Back at my hotel, I conducted a brave investigation into internet censorship: I googled the words “Andijan massacre.” To my surprise, I wasn’t Tasered by some unseen force and was instead able to open every link I clicked—including one that led to pictures of Babur Square, which, as it turned out, was not the square in front of the Vella Elegant, although it contained the very same horse-mounted statue..

I got in a cab and asked to be taken to the real Babur Square, which was now sans Babur statue. Some wild gesticulations by the cab driver and a phone call to his English-speaking friend confirmed my suspicions: the monument had been moved sometime after 2005.

While in Andijan I learned that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also in Uzbekistan, having descended upon Samarkand for meetings with Karimov and the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states. A Reuters article described one scene:

“As security men starting ushering reporters out of the room, one American reporter shouted a question to Karimov about the U.S. State Department’s own scathing critique of his human rights record. Karimov ignored the query. Kerry began responding but the reporter was pushed out of the room before he finished.”

The State Department has indeed proven itself most adept at typing up scathing critiques of the Uzbek government’s “endemic” corruption and reliance on torture, arbitrary arrests, and other varieties of freedom-quashing behavior (publicly insulting the president, for example, can get you up to five years behind bars). But in person, the U.S. approach is rather more schizophrenic. A 2005 New York Times dispatch—incidentally published 12 days before the Andijan massacre—offered a blow-by-blow of foreign policy dealings with Uzbekistan since 2001, which I’ll take the liberty of summarizing as follows:

1. Seven months before 9/11, State Department issues human rights report on Uzbekistan amounting to “litany of horrors.”

2. Immediately after 9/11, U.S. and Uzbekistan jump into War on Terror bed together. U.S. sets up military base on Uzbek territory near border with Afghanistan and proceeds to hurl money at Uzbek government. George Bush fêtes Karimov at White House. State Department continues to report on disastrous human rights situation.

3. Suicide bombings in Tashkent. Uzbek government embarks on anti-Islamic crackdown. State Department announces it’s cutting $18 million in aid due to human rights circumstances; Pentagon announces it’s increasing aid by $21 million.

4. Intelligence officials confirm Uzbekistan’s service as a CIA rendition destination. (Moral of the story: torturers come in handy.)

Following Western criticism of the assault in Andijan, Karimov evicted the Americans from their base. But the breakup was hardly definitive. Now, with so many new and improved threats emanating from the region—ISIS! Russia!—Uzbekistan is back in the game. And, hey, things are already looking up on the human rights front: shortly after I left the country in November, one of Uzbekistan’s many thousands of political prisoners was released from jail. Imprisoned in 1994 for what was supposed to be a nine-year stint, Murod Juraev saw his term repeatedly extended for offenses such as “peeling carrots incorrectly.” Of course, the return of Uzbekistan to the frontlines of the war on terror paves the way for mass arrests under the pretense of fighting ISIS.

On the domestic frontlines, meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s first daughter Gulnara remains under house arrest, but I dare say the lyrics of her pop star alter ego Googoosha ring eternal: “You look fine, but what do you hide in your soul?”