Uzbekistan has in a long-awaited move freed a political activist who has languished behind bars since 1992, when he was jailed on corruption charges that rights groups say were politically motivated.
Kukanov will remain under supervision for a year after his release, ferghana.ru reported.
Freeing Kukanov represents a notable about-face by the Uzbek authorities.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had issued a statement earlier this month demanding Kukanov’s release and protesting a decision by prison authorities in October to extend his sentence by three years.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time that the extension of the prison sentence indicated that acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev appeared intent on continuing the repressive policies of his late predecessor, Islam Karimov.
As HRW has documented, Uzbek prison authorities have routinely resorted to extending the sentences of political prisoners on spurious grounds.
“The action is often taken just days before the person is to be released, on bogus grounds such as possessing ‘unauthorized’ nail clippers, saying prayers, or wearing a white shirt, and may result in years of additional imprisonment,” the group noted in its recent statement.
Kukanov is a native of the Jizzakh region — the same as Mirziyoyev — and occupied a position in Soviet times as the director of a oil depot. He was elected to the Supreme Council of the Uzbek SSR in 1989, again during the same convocation as the current acting president.
As HRW has documented, Kukanov was arrested after addressing parliament in 1992 in protest at Karimov’s plans to consolidate his control over the security services. Investigators accused Kukanov of major fraud, linking his control over the fuel depot to his associations with the Erk opposition party, and was sentenced to 20 years in jail.
“[National Security Council, or SNB] officers held him incommunicado without access to counsel for an entire year in the basement of an SNB facility in Tashkent, during which time they tortured him, before finally bringing him to trial. Kukanov’s relatives told Human Rights Watch that SNB officers arbitrarily detained two of his sons immediately following his arrest and conducted a number of nighttime raids on his home to instill fear in his family,” HRW has written.
He had his sentenced extended in 2013 and then again last month, but this final ruling seems to have prompted the US State Department to intensify its effort to secure Kukanov’s release.
Freeing aging and physically weakened political prisoners is a cheap concession for Tashkent, which continues all the while to forbid any form of genuinely independent political activity and readily expels the few foreign reporters that manage to make it into the country.
With the election looming on December 4, Tashkent is eager for there to be pleasing background music, and what better than a man jailed for more than two decades getting to go home.
The tactic is a well established one.
Murod Juraev, for example, was let out of prison in November 2015, after serving 21 years in detention and only 10 days after a visit to Uzbekistan from US Secretary of State John Kerry. Over those two decades in prison, Juraev was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
It was the same story in 2010, when on the day before the arrival of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Uzbek authorities suddenly decided to release human rights activists Farkhad Mukhtarov, who had been serving a four-year sentence on politically motivated charges.
Countless other people jailed on transparently political grounds remain behind bars, as HRW has painstakingly documented in a dispiriting and certainly very far from complete list: “Azam Farmonov, Mehriniso Hamdamova, Zulhumor Hamdamova, Isroiljon Kholdorov, Gaybullo Jalilov, Nuriddin Jumaniyazov, Matluba Kamilova, Ganikhon Mamatkhanov, Chuyan Mamatkulov, Zafarjon Rahimov, Yuldash Rasulov, Bobomurod Razzokov, Fahriddin Tillaev, and Akzam Turgunov; journalists Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Muhammad Bekjanov, Gayrat Mikhliboev, Yusuf Ruzimuradov, and Dilmurod Saidov […] Kudratbek Rasulov, and Rustam Usmanov; and religious figures and other perceived government critics Aramais Avakyan, Ruhiddin Fahriddinov, Nodirbek Yusupov, Dilorom Abdukodirova, Botirbek Eshkuziev, Bahrom Ibragimov, Davron Kabilov, Erkin Musaev, Davron Tojiev, and Ravshanbek Vafoev.”
While every release is heartening news, these sporadic events are of little significance unless they become systematic and part of broader reforms to overhaul the justice system.