Uzbek journalist released after 18 years in jail

Uzbek journalist released after 18 years in jail
Kyrgyz soldiers march at a memorial monument to the Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan while fighting against the Afghan rebels in the 1980s during a commemorative ceremony in the Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, in this photo taken on February 15, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 23 February 2017

Uzbek journalist released after 18 years in jail

Uzbek journalist released after 18 years in jail

BISHKEK: Uzbekistan on Wednesday freed a prominent opposition journalist after 18 years behind bars, one of the longest prison stretches suffered by a reporter worldwide.
The release of former opposition newspaper editor Mohammed Bekjanov — jailed in 1999 — follows the death last year of veteran leader Islam Karimov, who ruled the Central Asian state with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
“It has been just a half an hour since I was released from the penal colony,” Bekjanov told Radio Free Europe.
“I am fine. Just tired. My hair has become completely white in these 18 years.”
There was no official comment on the release.
Bekjanov’s US-based daughter welcomed the news but said that she was “having mixed feelings.”
“I am so happy to tell everyone that my father is out of prison, but at the same time I am so mad for the fact that he lost 18 years of his life for nothing!,” Aygul Bekjan wrote on Facebook.
Rights activists hailed the release of Bekjanov, who the Committee to Protect Journalists says has — along with his colleague Yusuf Ruzimuradov — spent more time in prison than any journalist currently incarcerated.
Ruzimuradov, however, remains behind bars.
“The longest jailed journalist in the world, has just been released in Uzbekistan. Hard to describe our joy & relief!” Reporters Without Borders tweeted on Wednesday.
Bekjanov edited a prominent opposition newspaper in Uzbekistan until his arrest in 1999 on charges linked to a spate of bombings, with supporters insisting the case was designed to muzzle him.
International rights groups had raised fears for Bekjanov’s health after reports emerged in December that he had been moved from a general cell into solitary confinement.
His original prison sentence was extended by nearly five years in 2012 and observers of the case feared that another extension was imminent following the switch.
Supporters say that his real crime was being the brother of Mohammed Salih, who led the Erk opposition party, associated with the newspaper.
Salih was one of the most outspoken opponents of the Uzbek regime under former leader Karimov in the early years of independence from the Soviet Union, before later fleeing to Turkey.
Karimov, accused by rights groups of brutally crushing all dissent, died from a stroke last September after ruling the landlocked country since independence in 1991.
Uzbekistan has released several prominent political prisoners since new leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a Karimov loyalist, took over as president.
Mirziyoyev, who served as prime minister for 13 years, has shown signs that he may be willing to open up the country’s political system slightly, but a transition to democracy seems highly unlikely.
The US called Bekjanov’s release a “positive step on the part of the government of Uzbekistan” and called on the authorities to free more people held behind bars.
“We urge Uzbekistan to continue to build on this momentum by releasing other long-held journalists, activists and religious prisoners,” the embassy in Tashkent said in a statement.
Despite a dismal rights record, Uzbekistan has parlayed its strategic location in the heart of Eurasia and bordering Afghanistan to play off American and Russian interests in the region.