An exiled dissident author who returned to Uzbekistan this week only to be arrested on arrival is facing charges of promoting extremism in his writings.
Authorities are basing their case on a book by Nurullo Otakhonov published in 2016, Bu Kunlar (“These Days”), which dwells on the shortcomings of life in Uzbekistan since the country gained independence. The book is also critical of the late president, Islam Karimov. In addition to that, Otakhonov is accused of trying to smuggle banned books and discs into the country.
Otakhonov, 62, who writes under the pen-name of Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon, is being held at the Tashkent’s Yashnabad district police station. Police told the writer’s relatives to hire a lawyer, suggesting that he is likely to be in custody for the long haul.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, cited Otakhonov’s wife as saying the detention was prompted by the content of Bu Kunlar, which is included in a list of written works banned by the government.
The likelihood is that Otakhonov will be charged with laws criminalizing the production and distribution of “materials undermining public order,” and the illegal importation and distribution of religious literature. With the exception of Anhor.uz and Sof.uz, almost all media in Uzbekistan have pointedly refrained from covering the detention.
Meanwhile, at least one online petition has been initiated demanding the writer’s release.
Police have three days from the time of detention, which occurred on September 27, to formally charge Otakhonov. Rights activist Umida Niyazova said this period will be crucial.
“I see a new detail. Utterly loyal members of the Uzbek intelligentsia are openly writing about their unhappiness over the writer’s arrest and are demanding his release. But it is difficult to know how much this can influence the case. They will show just how sensitive the government has become toward people’s opinions and appeals,” Niyazova said.
Otakhanov was the first exiled dissident to have taken the plunge by returning to Uzbekistan since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made remarks in New York last week calling on Uzbeks to come back home.
“To all our compatriots living abroad that wish to make a contribution toward the development of our country, I invite you to return to Uzbekistan. I am prepared to support and encourage them in any way possible,” Mirziyoyev told a group of US-based Uzbek expats.
The remarks were interpreted in part as being an overture to exiled critics of the government, although Otakhanov’s detention suggests otherwise.