(New York) - Uzbek authorities on December 1, 2010, released the human rights defender Farkhad Mukhtarov from prison, where he had been serving a four-year sentence on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today.

Mukhtarov was freed on the eve of an official visit to Uzbekistan by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on December 2. At a town hall meeting with civil society groups in Astana, Kazakhstan the day before, Clinton said she would raise the plight of imprisoned defenders in her meetings with Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov. Once in Uzbekistan, in her public comments to the press, Clinton also affirmed the central role human rights played in the US-Uzbekistan relationship and underscored Uzbekistan's need to "translate words into practice" to improve its human rights record.

"Farkhad Mukhtarov's release is evidence that sustained external pressure can yield positive results, and the secretary of state has set a positive example," said Rachel Denber, acting Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch.  "Uzbekistan's international partners should now redouble efforts to secure the release of the at least 13 other human rights defenders who are still languishing behind bars."

Mukhtarov was paroled after serving 16 months of his sentence. But since he was not pardoned, he will continue to be on parole for the next two-and-a-half years - the remainder of his sentence - and will be required to pay 30 percent of his monthly salary to the state during this time.

"We are thrilled that Farkhad Mukhtarov has been released from prison, but he should never have been imprisoned in the first place," Denber said. "Authorities should immediately annul his conviction and allow him to do his human rights work without further government persecution."

Mukhtarov, 42-years-old, is a long-term member of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan who offered legal advice and consultations to people whose social and economic rights had been violated.  Mukhtarov acted as a public defender in a number of such cases and prior to his arrest actively participated in Alliance pickets calling attention to Uzbekistan's dismal human rights situation.

Authorities arrested Mukhtarov on July 17, 2009, on trumped-up charges of fraud and bribery. On October 2, following a trial that was riddled with procedural violations and in which the plaintiffs withdrew their claims against him, a court sentenced him to five years in prison.  The judge failed to ensure that there was adequate Uzbek-Russian translation for Mukhtarov and refused to allow Mukhtarov's lawyer to present material evidence or call defense witnesses. Mukhtarov's conviction was upheld on appeal, though his prison term was reduced to four years.

Mukhtarov, overjoyed to be home with his family, told Human Rights Watch that 16 months in prison had taken a serious toll on his health.  He lost a great deal of weight, his vision deteriorated, and he began to lose his teeth, he said.

"While we celebrate each release of a wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender, the Uzbek government's treatment of human rights activists remains atrocious," Denber said. "Their plight should be a top priority for key international actors, in particular the United States and the European Union. The release of all imprisoned human rights activists and journalists, and their ability to work freely without fear of persecution would be real progress."

The other human rights defenders still held, one in a closed psychiatric ward, were imprisoned for no other reason than their human rights work, Human Rights Watch said. Criminal charges have been brought against at least one more human rights defender.  Those still in prison on wrongful charges include: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov.

Other activists, such as the dissident poet Yusuf Jumaev, also remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Other human rights defenders and their families face repeated government threats and harassment.