An exiled writer returned to Uzbekistan on September 27 only to be slapped into handcuffs on arrival, raising fears that talk of a political thaw may have been premature.
Otakhonov, 62, who writes under the pen-name of Nurullo Muhammad Raufkhon, spoke of his plans to return to Uzbekistan to RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, on the eve of his departure from his adopted home in Turkey. Otakhonov told Ozodlik that he was taking President Shavkat Mirziyoyev at his word when he urged Uzbek living abroad to return home.
The writer said he was also encouraged by a recent decision to remove thousands of people from blacklists of individuals suspects of links to religious extremist groups. Otakhonov was also included on the state blacklist.
Otakhonov said that he moved to Turkey two years ago, after being invited to go there by his Istanbul publisher Ferfir. While living in Turkey, Otakhonov wrote a new book, Bu Kunlar (“These Days”), which was highly critical of life in Uzbekistan since the country earned independence in 1991.
“After the book came out, I started having a lot of problems. Many of my friends advised me for the time being not to return to Uzbekistan,” he told Ozodlik.
In 2016, an imam at an Andijan mosque publicly condemned the book, decrying Otakhonov as a “traitor of the nation.”
Speaking to EurasiaNet.org, another Uzbek writer, Karimberdi Turamurod, described Otakhonov as a masterful storyteller and a literary inspiration to his peers.
Otakhanov is the first exiled dissident to have taken the plunge by returning to Uzbekistan since 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.
But Otakhanov was evidently aware in advance of his trip to Tashkent that not all might go well, as he revealed in an interview to Reuters news agency.
“After they removed me from the blacklist, somebody decided to put up a list of wanted criminals with photos in the district where I am registered,” he told Reuters. “My name was among them.”
Otakhanov said that officials quickly corrected the mistake, but that the episode had left him anxious.