Boise & Garden City

How did two Uzbek refugees die?

The two good friends posed against a backdrop of pine trees in their adopted home. Olimjon Sobirov, the older one at 33, had recently arrived in Boise as a refugee from Uzbekistan and had landed a job manufacturing electronics.

His friend and fellow Uzbek refugee, 29-year-old Zohid Makhmedov, relished his new life in Idaho, working at Wal-Mart and spending time fishing and taking long, meandering drives.

But within two months of that photo, snapped July 1, 2006, in the mountains near Idaho City, both men would be dead in unexpected and largely unexplained ways, and a ripple of fright and intrigue would stun Uzbeks in Boise and around the world.

Rumors swirled about untraceable poisons and threats against both refugees and family members left behind, and a group of people who left their homeland in fear discovered that they didn't feel secure in their adopted country, either.

Many of Boise's small community of Uzbeks and their fellow refugees in a dozen states fled Uzbekistan, a country north of Afghanistan and once a part of the Soviet Union, during a military attack that left hundreds dead in a city square.

Boise's two mysterious deaths have been discussed at the United Nations, may have attracted the attention of the FBI (though adding to the intrigue, the agency denies it), and could have helped spur a wave of refugee returns that experts say is almost unprecedented.

Around the time the two men died, Uzbek refugees living in the U.S. and other countries began returning to their homeland amid allegations the Uzbek authorities were pressuring them to come back. The most recent wave included several refugees from Boise who left this month, even as the U.S. State Department added Uzbekistan to its list of the top 10 violators of human rights.

Now, almost two years after the deaths, most of the refugees and even the local people who work with them still refuse to talk about what could have happened to the two men.

Of all the local investigators who explored the deaths, just one, Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg, will even discuss them. He can only speculate that they could be more than a mere coincidence.

"The whole espionage thing," he said. "We can't disagree, but we can't prove it. Yes, anything is possible, but what's the probability?"

And just one man - Zohid Makhmedov's brother Akram, who took that picture to commemorate what was supposed to be the start of their new lives - continues to push for the answers that have eluded him so far.

Boise has about 130 Uzbeks, he points out.

What is the probability that two of them, both friends, both young, would die in their sleep one month apart for basically unknown reasons?

"I just want to know why they died," he said.

UNEXPLAINED DEATHS A MONTH APART STUMP INVESTIGATORS

Ada County authorities investigated both deaths - the second one far more intensely than the first. But neither inquiry arrived at satisfactory answers.

During the autopsy of Olimjon Sobirov, who died first, Deputy Coroner Jack Chaffin determined Sobirov suffered from hardening of the arteries, which Chaffin figured was a likely, though not definitive, cause of death.

This common problem rarely causes death in people age 45 and younger. Only 13 Idaho residents under the age of 45 have died from atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease since 1999, according to the state's Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics.

Ada County Forensic Pathologist Glenn Groben was unable to determine how or why Zohid Makhmedov died. His death certificate states that both the cause and manner of death are undetermined, a relatively rare occurrence in the Ada coroner's office.

"We don't like them," Sonnenberg said.

His office gets maybe one or two deaths a year in which both the cause and manner are undetermined. Usually the cases are newborn babies or bodies too decomposed to determine what happened.

Groben told investigators he considered whether several different substances contributed to Zohid Makhmedov's death, including cyanide and anthrax, but found no evidence.

Numerous substances can kill a person, said Sonnenberg, but without symptoms or other evidence, it is impossible to know which toxins to test for.

"We cannot test for all poisons, the state could not afford it," Sonnenberg said.

Both men now are buried in Uzbekistan, but the coroner's office has small tissue samples preserved from each for future testing should new information come to light.

Akram Makhmedov hopes the matter isn't dropped.

"Why? Why did this happen," he asked on a recent evening, as he sat in his living room sipping tea and eating warm homemade bread.

Glancing at the television, he noticed the program was about the first 48 hours of a murder and the actions police and investigators take to try and solve a crime. Makhmedov wasn't interviewed until three weeks after his brother's death.

"There!" Makhmedov gestured to the television. "Why not did the police do this? Why not did the police interview neighbors? Why not did they interview me? My family? I am very upset. Why not ask who has been in my brother's house?"

Makhmedov shook his head when asked what he thinks may have happened to his brother and his friend. But he made it clear he is convinced the deaths were not natural and coincidental.

Other family members and Uzbek and American friends and coworkers of Zohid Makhmedov and Sobirov refused to talk to the Idaho Statesman because they did not want to get involved or are afraid. The funeral home director refused to talk, too.

"They are too afraid to even think about it," said Nigmat Nazaraliev, a close friend of the two men and the only other Uzbek refugee who would talk on the record about the fear the two deaths caused.

Nazaraliev, too, is reluctant to speculate about the deaths. He worked as a human rights activist in Uzbekistan and had his own share of difficulties with the Uzbek government. But like Akram Makhmedov, he believes both deaths were unnatural.

Foreign policy experts and people who work with refugees say the fear is prevalent, justified and deeply ingrained following years of rigid government control in Uzbekistan. The fear is simple: that they, or their family, will face retribution for making the government look bad.

"If their name or photo is in the paper, [the Uzbek government] will find out," said Goran Debelnogich, who has worked with Uzbek refugees in Ohio.

FARM FAMILY FLEES HEAVY-HANDEDUZBEK GOVERNMENT

Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet rule the state owned all the farms, and in rural areas, much of the population worked on these massive operations.

The new Uzbek government continued to own and operate the collective farms, but it started leasing small plots for families to operate. The government told the farmers what crops to grow, whom to sell the produce to and at what price.

This is the world where Zohid and Akram Makhmedov lived, as Akram explains it.

The Makhmedov family leased 20 hectares - about 50 acres - on a collective farm to grow an orchard of several thousand apple trees. In hopes of improving the business, the family started to sell their apples on the open market, not to the local government.

When the farm operators demanded the family turn over their acres and earnings, the family refused. Police arrived and began chopping down the apple trees.

When the family tried to intervene, an officer punched their 75-year-old mother in the face. Police destroyed the orchard, and Akram Makhmedov was sentenced to five years in prison.

The family sought help from a human rights organization, and after 100 days, Makhmedov was released from jail. With the help of the United Nations, the two brothers were granted political asylum in the United States.

Craig Murray, British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2005, wrote a similar account in his book "Dirty Diplomacy."

He visited a family who refused to return their farm to the collective. The mother was beaten by a mob, one son was murdered and another jailed "for stealing his own apples," Murray wrote.

In late 2003, the brothers and their wives, along with Akram Makhmedov's three children, arrived in Boise.

The families began learning English and enrolled their children in school.

Zohid and his wife started working at Wal-Mart. Akram and his wife got jobs at electronics manufacturing companies.

Soon the two families purchased homes across the street from each other in Meridian. They quickly assimilated into American life.

The brothers became avid PlayStation players, they watched movies and soccer games on television - Brazil was Zohid's favorite team.

Zohid Makhmedov got personalized plates for his gray Pontiac that read "Uzbek." He frequently went on long drives, often to go fishing. Twice he visited the Oregon Coast.

"He liked the ocean," Akram Makhmedov said.

HUNDREDS FLEE AFTER SOLDIERS MASSACREHUNDREDS IN ANDIJAN

Olimjon Sobirov's journey to Boise was even more harrowing.

On May 13, 2005, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in Babur Square in Andijan, Uzbekistan, to protest the country's poor living conditions. Uzbek military troops began firing into the crowd. People took cover or fled. According to reports from the media and human rights groups, more than 400 people escaped down a side street and didn't stop walking.

They trekked overnight about 30 miles to the neighboring country of Kyrgyzstan, where they entered a refugee camp. They fled Uzbekistan so quickly and so chaotically that they left everything behind, including their spouses and children.

About 250 of the Andijan refugees resettled in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department, including a group of 55 who joined the Makhmedovs and other Uzbek refugees in Boise in March 2006. Sobirov was part of that group.

He moved into an apartment complex off State Street, as did many of the Andijan refugees. Already able to speak English, he got a job at PKG Inc., an electronics manufacturing company in Meridian, where Akram and Nazaraliev also worked.

The Makhmedov brothers and Nazaraliev befriended some of the new Andijan refugees. They took them fishing and to the hot springs. They played chess. They invited them to dinner in their homes.

They asked the newcomers about Andijan, about that May evening that has been referred to as Uzbekistan's Tiananmen Square.

The Uzbek government reported 187 people died. Reports from witnesses and human rights organizations put the estimate at 300 to 1,000.

But the newcomers refused to talk about what happened - even to other Uzbeks.

"A lot of refugees in general are very protective about their refugee experience," said Leslye Boban, refugee resettlement director for International Rescue Committee Boise office. "They may have left behind family that are still at risk."

Uzbek refugees living in the United States still fear their old government, said Debelnogich, who works with refugees through the International Institute of Akron in Ohio.

"They are truly scared for their families in Uzbekistan," Debelnogich said.

His agency helped about 30 Andijan refugees resettle in Ohio. Two have since returned to Uzbekistan at the urging of family members.

During his investigation into Zohid Makhmedov's death, Meridian police Detective Mike Lock talked to Rene Hage from World Relief, the agency that helped the Makhmedovs resettle here. She would not talk about the Uzbeks with the Statesman, citing privacy concerns, but she told Lock the Uzbek embassy was calling for all Andijan refugees to return home, saying, "[W]hen they refuse, there are consequences like something bad could happen to your family."

She also told Lock about a rumor.

"[Hage] has heard in the Uzbek community that there is a drug in their community that you can use to kill people and would not be detected," he wrote in his report.

Lock also talked to Lynn Hyneman, who helped teach the Makhmedovs English. She repeated the rumor.

"Uzbekistanis were here to persuade others to go back; otherwise they would kill them for not returning," Lock wrote.

Less than a year after arriving in the United States, more than one-third of the 250 Andijan refugees had returned to the country from which they fled. Of the 55 Andijan refugees living in Boise, 10 women left shortly after the two men's deaths.

According to Akram Makhmedov, neither his brother nor Sobirov had planned to return to Uzbekistan.

Like Hage, Hyneman declined to speak to the Statesman about the Uzbek reaction to the deaths, as did other staff from the local refugee agencies that helped relocate the Uzbek refugees to Boise.

TWO YOUNG, HEALTHY MEN ARE FOUND DEAD IN THEIR HOMES

On the last night of July, Sobirov swam and ate dinner with friends. He went to bed at around 1 a.m.

A few hours later, his roommates awoke to get ready for work. Sobirov did not. The roommates went into Sobirov's bedroom and found him in his bed, cold and unresponsive. They called the police.

Deputy Coroner Roy Mullen arrived at 4:45 a.m.

Boise police Detective Dave Smith noted in his report that between 20 to 30 Uzbek men gathered outside Sobirov's apartment.

"No one spoke the entire time," Smith wrote.

Zohid Makhmedov bowled with his brother Akram on Sept. 1, the night before his death. His family joined his brother's family for dinner and to watch movies. Nazaraliev, who was living with Akram Makhmedov at the time, joined them for dinner.

At about midnight, Zohid Makhmedov and his family walked across the street to their home where they fell asleep on the couches in the living room.

One of the children started to cry a few hours later. Zohid asked his wife Nafisa to take the child to bed. The wife and child went into the bedroom, and Nafisa fell asleep with the child for a short time.

She went back into the living room and noticed her husband's face was white. She tried to awaken him, but he did not respond.

When the paramedics arrived and started CPR at about 5:45 a.m., the body was still warm. Deputy Coroner Erik Schmidt was called at 6:30 a.m.

Nafisa Makhmedov, who left Boise in December and could not be reached by the Statesman, would later tell police that her husband had no health problems. He did not drink alcohol, did not do drugs and did not have any allergies.

INVESTIGATIONS RAISE QUESTIONS BUT OFFERFEW ANSWERS

Boise Police Department's two-page report on Sobirov's death was completed Aug. 17, about two weeks before Zohid died. The death was presumed natural. No one was interviewed.

The body was returned to Uzbekistan.

Smith, the Boise detective in charge, added no new information following the second death, though, according to the Meridian police report, Smith met with Meridian officers, the deputy coroner and members of the FBI joint terrorism task force to discuss whether the two deaths were linked.

Smith has since retired from the Police Department and could not be reached for comment.

Lock, the Meridian detective who investigated the second death, conducted a far more extensive inquiry. He hired a translator to help interview Akram Makhmedov and Nazaraliev. He collected trash from both Makhmedov houses and booked about 90 water, juice and soda containers into evidence.

Almost two weeks into the investigation, Lock requested a meeting with Boise officer Smith, forensic pathologist Groben and "members of the FBI terrorist task force." He concluded the inquiry on Nov. 22.

"During the investigation I did not find any evidence to indicate foul play," he wrote in his report. "At this time I feel that this case is closed, unless other new facts present themselves in the future." Lock, too, wouldn't talk for this story.

And adding to Akram Makhmedov's frustration and the aura of intrigue surrounding the events, the Meridian police report contains references to the FBI. The coroner's office and others said they were interviewed by the FBI. The FBI, though, adamantly denies it conducted an investigation into the deaths.

"We don't have an investigation. We didn't have an investigation, and we never have," said John Morton, supervisory senior resident agent in the Boise office.

Akram Makhmedov even went to the governor's office for help shortly after the deaths.

Then-Gov. Jim Risch said he remembers the incident well. He, too, thought the coincidental nature of the deaths warranted a closer look and forwarded the information to the Idaho State Police.

The State Police have no records pertaining to Risch's request, though. But the deaths occurred out of ISP's jurisdiction, so the most ISP could do is provide assistance if requested from the investigators, ISP officials said.

If not for the police reports and Sonnenberg, the coroner who is the only official who will talk about the cases, it could seem as though nothing ever happened.

Foul play cannot be proved, nor can it be disproved, Sonnenberg said.

"Right now we do not have anything," he said. "Bring us something and we'll look into it."

ANOTHER MYSTERY UNFOLDS AS UZBEKS RETURN EN MASSE

Of the 250 Andijan refugees who spent more than a year in refugee camps in Kyrgyzstan and Romania before being relocated to the U.S., between one-third and one-half have since returned to the country from which they fled.

The first group, 12 refugees in Arizona, left in July 2006. The most recent group, about a dozen refugees, left Boise earlier this month.

The refugees' return to Uzbekistan has some human rights and refugee organizations baffled - and wondering whether the country was indeed pressuring its citizens to return.

"It is extremely rare, in my experience the idea or situation of a group returning en masse, together is unprecedented," said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees, who has worked with thousands of refugees over 20 years.

A few refugees occasionally will return to their home country if a war ends or a regime changes. Conditions in Uzbekistan, though, remain volatile.

"The country continues to suppress independent civil society activism and independent religious worship, and to resist investigation of and accountability for the 2005 Andijan massacre," reported Human Rights Watch, a group that says dozens of human rights workers and journalists have had to leave the country because of threats to their lives and their families.

Some of the refugees who returned to Uzbekistan have once again fled the country.

These returnees "have been a particular target of government pressure," Human Rights Watch reported in January. "They have been subjected to interrogations, constant surveillance, ostracism, and in some cases overt threats to life, which has triggered a new wave of refugees."

And in the midst of international discussions about the fears, the pressures and the ways the Uzbek government could be influencing refugees around the world, these puzzling deaths in Idaho continue to come up.

"Uncertainty surrounds the fate of Uzbeks who fled the country," reads a November 2007 report presented to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

That report says dozens of the refugees have returned "allegedly because of homesickness" and based on "promises from the government that they would not be harmed."

"[C]oercion is thought to have been used against them or, perhaps, against their relatives in Uzbekistan," the report said.

"Concerns were even more maintained with the mysterious deaths of two Uzbek refugees in the United States while they attempted to stay."

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428

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