For more than two decades, Murod Juraev languished behind bars in Uzbekistan and was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
All kinds of pretexts were cooked up to extend the political activist’s jail term, including, on one occasion, a charge that he peeled carrots incorrectly.
Now, after 21 years in detention — a timespan that has made him “one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists” — Juraev has been released, nine human rights groups said in a joint statement on November 12.
Juraev was a member of the Erk opposition party and a former local mayor in southern Uzbekistan when he was jailed, in 1994.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, said in the joint statement. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
Swerdlow was referring to abuse to which Juraev, now 63 years old, was allegedly subjected in jail and to apparently groundless extensions to the original nine-year prison sentence.
Juraev had his jail term extended four times to keep him in jail — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012 — after authorities found he had broken prison rules, including “peeling carrots incorrectly.”
Minor violations of petty regulations are frequently used as pretexts to extend the sentences of political prisoners, a report by Human Rights Watch found last year. Violations documented in the report that led to extensions of jail terms included “failure to lift a heavy object” and “wearing a white shirt.”
“Uzbek authorities repeatedly punish a wide variety of prisoners they see as potential government critics by arbitrarily extending their prison terms on often absurd grounds,” Brigitte Dufour, director of the International Partnership for Human Rights, said in the joint statement.
The human rights groups are now urging Tashkent to investigate allegations of torture against Juraev — a call that comes shortly after exiled activist Mutabar Tadjibayeva won a landmark ruling at the United Nations ordering Uzbekistan to investigate her claims of torture, which Tashkent denies.
Juraev is said to be in desperate need of medical attention. Human Rights Watch quoted his wife as saying that he was now little more than a “skeleton” and that he had developed trouble eating, suffered constant headaches and lost all his teeth while in prison.
The groups also called on Uzbekistan to “unconditionally release the numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated, unfair trials,” and on the international community to press for their freedom.
Juraev was only one out of many opposition activists to be swept up in the frenzy of politically motivated arrests in Uzbekistan in the spring of 1994. President Islam Karimov’s regime had previously regarded the Erk party, of which Juraev was a member, with grudging tolerance.
“Juraev’s family and local activists had the courage to campaign for his freedom for many years at great personal risk,” said Nadejda Atayeva, an exiled campaigner who heads the Paris-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia.
“It is now of the utmost importance for Uzbekistan’s international partners to be willing to do the same to prevent the ongoing arbitrary detention of many people who have been punished simply for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”