Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Uzbekistan: Uzbek writer released after over 14 years in prison


Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International Award-winning Uzbek writer, Mamadali Makhmudov, has finally been released after over 14 years in prison. PEN International has been campaigning for Makhmudov's release from the outset, alongside that of other writers and journalists. Today there are at least ten others thought to still be detained.

While welcoming Makhumdov's release, it calls for the release of all those detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression and for an end to the widespread censorship in Uzbekistan.

In the late evening of 19 April 2013, 72-year-old Makhmudov, walked out of prison and met his five grand-children for the first time. His wife told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that her husband was tired and resting. He had been held since February 1999, convicted on charges of involvement in a series of bombings in Tashkent, an apparent assassination attempt against President Karimov. There was little evidence to back this up and human rights groups in Uzbekistan and worldwide rose to his defence. When he appeared in court in August 1999, Makhmudov testified about the beatings and threats he suffered in jail, including electric shock treatment. He also told of how female members of his family had been threatened with rape.

Reports of torture, particularly in the late 1990s, were rife, and accounts from prisons such as his were common.

Makhmudov was able to smuggle further testimony on prison ill treatment in the early 2000s.

Makhmudov's sentence expired in February this year, but he was not freed. Instead, he was taken from the Chirchik labour camp to a detention centre in Tashkent. On 8 April, he was sentenced to three years of additional imprisonment for breaking prison regulations. He had appealed against this new sentence and was waiting for the response when he was unexpectedly released.

Makhmudov is a celebrated writer. In the early 1980s his novel, Eternal Mountains, was published to acclaim. An historical fiction of the events of the Russian occupation of Central Asia in the 1800s, the book won him Uzbekistan's prestigious Cholpan Award. It was published in French by l'Aubre in 2008.

In 1991, encouraged by the fall of the Iron Curtain, he joined a number of other writers and intellectuals to form the Erk party, led by another writer, Muhammad Salih, who stood for president in that year's elections. Official figures stated that Erk won 12% of the votes, yet the party contests this, saying it got over 50%. Since 1993, the party and its newspaper have effectively been banned and Salih went into exile. Erk supporters were targeted for arrest and harassment. Makhmudov himself was first arrested between 1994 and 1996. Then, in February 1999, a series of bombs exploded in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The authorities were swift to accuse Muhamad Salih in absentia, and his supporters were arrested, among them Mamadali Makhumudov, and several others, including journalists and contributors to the Erk newspaper, Muhammad Bekjanov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov. Makhmudov was sentenced to 14 years in prison, while Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov each received 15 years. Bekjanov, sentence was reduced to 12 years and should have been freed in 2011, but instead he was given a 5-year sentence, apparently for breaking unspecified prison rules, like Makhmudov earlier this year. Bekjanov is not due to be freed until 2016 or 2017. Little has been heard from Ruzimuradov in recent years.

So why was Makhmudov freed two days ago? One reason could be that this Wednesday, 24 April 2013, Uzbekistan comes before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, as part of its Universal Periodic Review process. It will be required to show how far it has met its obligations to uphold human rights, and will be questioned by other UN member states. No doubt the imprisonment and torture of dissidents such as Makhmudov will be raised. However, unless Uzbekistan releases all prisoners of conscience, and, as importantly, revises it legislation and practice so as to end suppression of free expression once and for all, it is likely to find itself under continued scrutiny that will not be alleviated by the release of one emblematic figure.