The United States has urged Uzbekistan to release opposition journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been imprisoned since 1999, and ease restrictions on journalists in the authoritarian Central Asian state.
"We call on the government of Uzbekistan to release Mr. Bekjanov and to take the steps necessary to create space for independent journalists to work without fear of violence," U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told a May 1 briefing in Washington.
Rights activists call Bekjanov, former editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, one of the longest-imprisoned journalists in the world.
Human Rights Watch says he was jailed after being kidnapped in Kyiv by Uzbek security forces in 1999 and that he has been tortured while in custody.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, two years before it gained independence in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During that time, he has neutralized most of his political opposition, and his government has been accused of frequent human rights abuses.
The 77-year-old Karimov was reelected in a March 29 election with more than 90 percent of the vote, despite a constitutional restriction against any individual serving more than two terms in office.
Vote monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the poll lacked a genuine opposition to Karimov and was marred by legal and organizational shortcomings.
Rathke, whose comments came ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, noted that Bekjanov "is thought to have been arrested for his public criticism of President Karimov’s administration, and for his affiliation with a peaceful political opposition party."
A report released by the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House on April 29 cited Uzbekistan as among the world’s 10 worst countries and territories for press freedoms, alongside countries including Belarus, Russian-occupied Crimea, Iran, and Turkmenistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, which recently completed a review of its Central Asia policy, has insisted that it will continue to advocate for human rights, political reforms, and free media in the region.
Rights activists have accused Washington of turning a blind eye to abuses by authoritarian governments in Central Asia in order to secure cooperation on counterterrorism and other security matters.
Last month, Amnesty International called on the European Union to increase pressure on the Karimov's government to stop torture in Uzbek jails and prisons.
Rathke added on May 1 that Washington also urges Tashkent "to allow international observers to visit prisons and to grant all citizens access to full due process in accordance with international commitments."