An Uzbek journalist widely seen as a political prisoner has walked free after nearly 18 years behind bars.
Journalist Muhammad Bekjon, 63, told RFE/RL by telephone that he had been released on February 22 upon completion of his sentence.
"It's been just a half an hour since I was released from the penal colony," Bekjon said. "I am fine. Just tired. My hair has become completely white in these 18 years."
His daughter, Inna Begzhanova, posted on Facebook that his family had not seen or spoken with him during the entire time he was in prison.
"Today we heard his voice for the first time," she wrote. "It definitely feels unreal."
Muhammad Bekjon (right) makes a phone call after his release from prison.
The Reporters Without Borders nongovernmental organization had listed Bekjon as "one of the world's longest-held journalists."
Bekjon was editor in chief of the opposition Erk (Freedom) newspaper until he was forced to flee abroad in 1994.
The newspaper was published by the opposition Erk party led by Bekjon's brother, Muhammad Solih. Solih had to flee Uzbekistan for Azerbaijan in 1993 and later settled in Turkey.
In 1999, Bekjon was kidnapped in Kyiv, Ukraine, and brought to Tashkent, where he was convicted of being involved in an alleged terrorist attack targeting then-President Islam Karimov.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, a term that was later reduced by three years.
Bekjon denied the allegations and denounced them as politically motivated.
In 2011, just one month before his release, his prison term was prolonged by four years and eight months for alleged "violations of the penal colony's regulations."
Other Prominent Prisoner Releases
Uzbek strongman Karimov died in 2016. His successor, President Shavkat Mirziyaev, has been releasing political prisoners, which has been seen as part of a policy of gradually reducing authoritarian control in the county.
Pioneering Uzbek banker Rustam Usmonov, 69, who was widely viewed as a political prisoner, was released on February 15 after serving 19 years in prison.
The Kyrgyzstan-born Usmonov became the owner of Uzbekistan's first private bank, Rustambank, in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the communist Soviet Union. He was one of the leading tycoons in Uzbekistan at the time.
He was convicted of extortion and illegal currency-exchange operations and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1998.
In 2012, his prison term was prolonged by five years for what the authorities said was "bad behavior while in custody."
Relatives and rights groups say Usmonov's imprisonment was politically motivated.
In November, former lawmaker Samandar Qoqonov, 72, was released after serving 23 years in prison.
Qoqonov, dubbed by his supporters "Uzbekistan’s longest-held political prisoner," was arrested in July 1993. His supporters say the embezzlement case against him was politically motivated.
In October, Qoqonov's prison term was prolonged by another three years and five days due to "violations of the penitentiary’s internal regulations," but that ruling was revoked days later.
The release of the three men was a significant departure from the common Uzbek practice of extending prison terms in political cases.