Activist Azis Toktobaev faces an unwarranted response by local mafia
Though Azis Toktobaev ’20 has served as an international human rights activist for many years, this past winter, government scandal and mafia intrusion into his personal affairs changed the direction of his life and activism.
Toktobaev’s desire for restorative justice began early in his life and led him to organize many events and protests both at Berea and at home in Kyrgyzstan. He has been involved with many organizations like Human Rights Watch, United Nations and Voices4 all while being a dedicated and involved student on the Berea College campus. In 2018, he gained an internship opportunity to work as a legal assistant and translator for eight asylum cases. Within the next year, his career as an activist took a dramatic twist.
Over winter break in 2019, Toktobaev traveled home to Kyrgyzstan to find the country in the midst of a government scandal. A government worker had allegedly stolen more than $700 million and made a getaway untouched. Investigative journalists found ways to seemingly prove the crime, leaving Toktobaev and many of his friends convinced the thief was being protected by the government.
In response, Toktobaev and his fellow activists organized an event called “The Reaction,” intended to protect the integrity of their country. Many activists joined him to promote the event on various social media platforms, and it was wildly popular in the activist community. Simultaneously, though, Toktobaev received word of the protest being falsely advertised as an LGBTQ+assembly—a dangerous thing to disclose publicly in Kyrgyzstan.
Toktobaev explained that while most of the group was supportive of progressive ideas, the nature of the protest was not at all aligned with the feminist or LGBTQ+ agenda.
“We try to distance ourselves from the protest, so people will not be distracted by the very progressive ideas. We like to focus on one issue at a time,” Toktobaev said.
Despite the fake news circulating the peaceful protest, Toktobaev and many of his online followers showed up to the event. While everyone was excitedly preparing for the protest, Toktobaev noticed two journalists in the corner filming him.
“We had to have a plan and be super brave and super proud. I wanted people to wonder, ‘Why are his parents so proud when all of this is happening?’”
“I thought it was weird,” he said. “They were filming me, but they weren’t asking me any questions.” Distracted by the event, he shrugged it off and assumed they must be silent journalists.
Two to three hours after the protest ended, Toktobaev’s phone was overwhelmed with calls. There had been a video released where a potentially paid person stood in front of the protest and said he represented the queer community and that 40 of them were present that day. While he spoke, the camera zoomed in on Toktobaev’s face, meant to represent “the queer community.”
“I have no idea who that person was,” Toktobaev said. “No one at the protest could identify him either.”
Within hours, the video had been posted on every social media platform and people had begun to advertise Toktobaev’s social media accounts online as well. His inbox was flooded with orders to leave the country and threats on his life, while views on the video climbed into the hundred thousands.
Toktobaev was horrified to realize his identity had been revealed by the local mafia. “To know the mafia, who allegedly circulates $3 million to pay people to dox, was coming after me was pretty scary.”
He shared that the period post-protest was really hard for both him and his parents. Toktobaev’s mom received phone calls during all hours of the day and his dad would get strange looks at work because they knew who his son was.
“We had to have a plan and be super brave and super proud,” Azis said.“I wanted people to wonder, ‘Why are his parents so proud when all of this is happening?’”
The weeks and months that followed were full of hardship. After Toktobaev returned back to Berea for his spring semester, he worried about what things were like back home. Even now, the video is still circulating and being reposted by various bloggers who identify Toktobaev as the face of the gay agenda.
“When I was at home, my parents were panicking and I had to stay super confident and strong for them. When it followed me to Berea, it broke me down for a good three hours,” Azis said.
In the midst of his struggle, though, he also realized the power of his activism as he received messages and support from fans expressing their gratitude and admiration for standing up for his beliefs.
“My goal is to raise a generation of kids who are organizers and support them and just be a representation for the young people,” Toktobaev said.
While Toktobaev has felt encouraged by the support he has received, he acknowledges this simply is not something that is going away anytime soon.
“I don’t think there will be a point where I don’t have to worry about it being dangerous,” Toktobaev said. “It’s part of my life and I am going home regardless.”
While activism comes at a high price, and it certainly cost a lot this time around, Toktobaev expressed that he didn’t regret organizing the protest.
“I think Maya Angelou said it best: ‘You only are free when you realize you belong no place —you belong every place —no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’”