A political journalist in Uzbekistan who has languished behind bars for 18 years has been released in a development that has elicited elated responses from rights activists.
Muhammad Bekjanov, the 63-year old brother of prominent exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of threatening the constitutional order. His sentence was extended by five years in 2012 on the grounds that he had violated unspecified prison rules.
News of Bekjanov’s release was broken by his relatives and Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“I am sure that this decision was made at the very top of the Uzbek leadership, and it was the right one,” Niyazova wrote on her Facebook account.
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow welcomed Bekjanov’s release, while noting that much more remained to be done by Uzbek authorities to address the country’s blemished rights record.
“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Swerdlow said in a statement.
Bekjanov was not released by virtue of any reprieve but rather because he had served his original sentence in full, and then some.
“We welcome his release, although it is important to note that he was only released following the arbitrary extension of his prison term in 2012 on wholly absurd grounds and fully served out his extended term. In this case Bekjanov left prison at the end of his term,” Swerdlow said.
Swerdlow said that if President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power after the death last year of Islam Karimov, is serious about improving his country’s rights record, more of the country’s political prisoners will have to be released.
Niyazova said other journalists and rights activists now needing attention include Agzam Turgunov, Azam Farmonov, Solijon Abdurakhmanov and Jamshid Karimov.
“Freeing them would cost nothing, but it could bring a huge reputation boost for Mirziyoyev,” Niyazova said.
Bekjanov became active in journalism and politics in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, when he and his brother agitated for their Erk party. Solih drew particular attention from the authorities for his decision to stand against Karimov in the 1991 presidential election, when he ran on a nationalistic and pan-Turkic platform. Bekjanov’s efforts were concentrated on the Erk party’s official newspaper, which was eventually banned in 1994.
Mounting pressure compelled Bekjanov to flee the country and take up residence in Ukraine. When a series of mysterious blasts rocked the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999, authorities linked the attacks to Erk and redoubled their efforts to apprehend all the party’s members. Bekjanov was scooped up in Ukraine and taken to Uzbekistan, where rights activists say he was subjected to torture to force him to confess to his supposed involvement with the Tashkent bombings.
While in prison, Bekjanov contracted tuberculosis, which is rife in Uzbekistan’s jails, and lost his hearing in one ear, sustained broken limbs and lost most of his teeth as a result of beatings, according to rights groups.
Bekjanov’s family sought and were granted permanent residence in the United States in 2003. His daughter, Aigul Bekjanova, told EurasiaNet.org that rumors of an imminent release had been circulating for the past month.
“Our whole family hasn’t slept for a week. When my mother heard the news about his release, she cried and she has been crying with happiness ever since. We have worked so hard to secure his release,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Bekjanov is only the latest of a handful of prominent, long-time prisoners to be released in recent months — a trend that has raised some hopes that Mirziyoyev is toying with a gradual softening of his regime.
In November, 72-year-old Samandar Kukanov was released from jail after 24 years of imprisonment. 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, whom they also linked with the Erk party, of major fraud and sentenced him to 20 years in jail. In a pattern that has been repeated with many political prisoners, Kukanov too had his sentence arbitrarily lengthened.
And earlier this month, Rustam Usmanov, the founder of the country’s first privately run bank was released from jail after serving 19 years, much of it at the notorious Zhaslyk prison in the deserts of western Uzbekistan. Usmanov also had attracted the wrong kind of attention through his outspoken criticism of the authorities.
Otamurod Rahmon, a representative with the People's Movement of Uzbekistan alliance of exiled opposition activists, was hopeful Bekjanov’s freedom would presage more similar developments.
"The release of Muhammad Bekjanov tells us that the person who has come to power in Uzbekistan is somebody who thinks about his people and the country’s image on the international stage. If Mirziyoyev could release the brother of Muhammad Solih, the main opposition leader, we can also expect that freedom will come for other political prisoners,” Rahmon wrote on his Facebook page.