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Uzbek human rights defender and government critic Mutabar Tojibaeva was released from the Tashkent Women’s Prison, where she was serving an eight-year prison sentence for her human rights activities, said Human Rights Watch said today.

Tojibaeva was paroled on June 2, 2008, after serving two years and eight months of her eight-year prison sentence. Although released, Tojibaeva was not amnestied and will continue to serve a three-year suspended sentence.

“We are thrilled that Mutabar Tojibaeva has been released from prison,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But she should never have been imprisoned in the first place. Her conviction should be annulled, and she should be allowed to do her human rights work without further government persecution.”

Tojibaeva told Human Rights Watch immediately after her release on June 2 that she believes she was paroled because of her medical condition. She was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and underwent surgery on March 18, 2008, at the Tashkent Oncological Hospital. She described her condition as very weak and stated that she is suffering from anemia.

Tojibaeva, 46 years old, has been a fearless critic of the Uzbek government and openly spoke out against the massacre of mainly unarmed civilians by government forces in Andijan in May 2005. She is also the head of the Burning Hearts Club, an unregistered nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the eastern Uzbek city of Margilan, and has long helped ordinary people seek justice.

On October 7, 2005, in clear retribution for her criticism of the government following the Andijan massacre, Tojibaeva was arrested in her home on 17 counts of criminal activity, including slander, extortion, tax evasion, polluting the environment, and membership in an illegal organization. On March 6, 2006, Tojibaeva was sentenced to eight years in prison in a trial that Human Rights Watch said violated fair trial standards; she was denied the right to prepare an adequate defense or cross-examine several key state witnesses. Her conviction was upheld on appeal.

At least 11 human rights defenders remain in prison (one of them in a closed psychiatric ward) for politically motivated reasons. Seven human rights defenders have been released from prison or amnestied since January 2008. Some were amnestied only after they signed statements promising to abandon their human rights activism. Human rights defenders, who have been fortunate enough to avoid imprisonment as well as their families, are under constant threat and harassment.

“While we celebrate each release of an imprisoned human rights defender, the treatment of Uzbek human rights activists remains abysmal,” said Cartner. “Uzbekistan’s international partners should insist on the release of all remaining human rights defenders, and for them to be able to work freely. That would truly be something to celebrate.”

On May 15, 2008, Tojibaeva was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

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