In 2013, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) gave jailed Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov the organization’s Freedom Prize. At that point Bekjanov had been languishing in an Uzbek penal colony for 14 years. Even then — four years ago — Bekjanov was referred to as “one of the world’s longest held journalists.”
Central Asia watchers and human rights advocates were pleasantly surprised Wednesday when news broke that Bekjanov had been released.
Now 63, Bekjanov rose to prominence in the early days of independence as a vibrant opposition voice. His brother, Muhammad Salih, founded the Erk party and was Islam Karimov’s only opponent in the 1991 presidential election. As RSF commented in 2013:
For three years [following the 1991 election], Erk served as the primary forum of written dissent against the government of President Karimov, who had been First Secretary of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan in the 1980s. While Karimov’s policies aimed to limit democratic development and silence criticism by hounding journalists and their families, Bekjanov continued to contribute regularly to Erk and supported the Erk party, a political movement founded by Salih during the 1991 presidential election. President Karimov worked consistently to stifle the voice of the opposition, and his government’s efforts led to the banning of the newspaper Erk in 1994.
Solih fled Uzbekistan in 1993 and Bekjanov left Uzbekistan in 1994.
The brothers continued to operate from abroad and in 1999 authorities in Tashkent blamed the Erk party for a series of bombings in the capital. Bekjanov was kidnapped from Ukraine and returned to Tashkent where he was arrested and charged with involvement in the bombings. Rights advocates say he was tortured into confessing. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years. In 2003, his sentence was reduced to 13 years when, as RSF put it “an Islamist militant said he was tortured into implicating” Bekjanov.
As his release date in early 2012 approached, however, Bekjanov was given an additional 5 years for “violating prison rules.”
It seems that Bekjanov’s release came as scheduled, after completing his original sentence and the additional time. Nonetheless, it was met with excitement by friends, family and activists.
Uzbekistan watchers have also taken note of other prisoner releases in recent months, including the November 2016 release of opposition politician Samandar Kukanov, 72, after serving 24 years in prison and last week’s release of former banker Rustam Usmanov, 69, after serving 19 years.
Some will view such releases as a “softening” of Tashkent’s previously hard line on opposition; but critics will note that releasing old men from prison is hardly the same thing as tolerating active criticism.
Following the death of Uzbekistan’s long-time President Islam Karimov last year, new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has worked diligently to frame the country’s leadership in new light both for regional and international audiences. To what extent Mirziyoyev can reform a system built on patronage and sustained through the consistent suppression of opposition voices will only become clear with time. Karimov took 25 years to bring Uzbekistan to its present state and many critics will point out that Mirziyoyev rode along with Karimov’s way of doing things for much of that time. Still, there is ample opportunity to embrace and encourage a more open polity in Uzbekistan. These releases are a hopeful sign and good news, indeed.