It feels so good to write these lines. Today, following 18 long years of hell in an Uzbekistan jail, Muhammad Bekjanov, one of the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists, is finally free.
A couple of hours ago I spoke to Bekjanov’s ecstatic daughter, Aygul, who sent me a photo of her father drinking tea in the company of extended relatives. The family was stopping off to taste a bit of freedom on the way to a relative’s home a few hours away from the prison. In the many years I’ve worked with Aygul and her family - raising Bekjanov’s unlawful imprisonment and torture in Washington, Brussels, and other capitals - I’ve never heard her sound so relieved or joyful as she did today.
Bekjanov’s nightmare began when agents of Uzbekistan’s feared National Security Services kidnapped him from his apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1999. A prominent member of the peaceful political opposition party Erk (Freedom) and editor of one of Uzbekistan’s leading independent newspapers at the time, Bekjanov had fled Tashkent two years earlier following a devastating crackdown on the opposition led by the country’s late, long-serving authoritarian president, Islam Karimov.
Forcibly returned to Uzbekistan without a hearing, Bekjanov was tried in a closed Tashkent courtroom amid allegations that he’d been subjected to electric shocks, beatings with batons, and temporary suffocation. He was sentenced to thirteen years in jail.
At the end of January 2012, just days before his prison sentence was set to end, he was given an additional five years for so-called “violations of prison rules.” (We learned later the official reason was that he possessed “unauthorized” nail clippers in his jail cell). Bekjanov is the fourth political prisoner allowed to leave prison at the end of an extended jail term since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became acting president following Karimov’s death in August 2016. In Mirziyoyev’s election campaign he pledged greater accountability for citizens, and reform of the country’s criminal justice system.
Mirziyoyev should now allow Bekjanov to travel to the US to join the rest of his family. He should also signal that today’s positive news is a first step towards the immediate and unconditional release of the numerous other political prisoners still unjustly jailed in Uzbekistan today. Their nightmares have to come to an end too.