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'If You Mind Your Own Business, No One Pressures You'

Rashid Bekjon (file photo)

Rashid Bekjon (file photo)

"What is past is past; I don't want to think about it now," says Rashid Bekjon, an Uzbek political prisoner who was recently released from jail after completing a 12-year prison term.

Bekjon was imprisoned following the 1999 bombings in Tashkent that Uzbek authorities blamed on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He was found guilty of trying to overthrow the government.

Bekjon is better known as a brother of Muhammad Salih, the leader of Uzbekistan's opposition Erk movement and 1991 presidential candidate, who lives today in exile in Norway, where he has been granted political asylum.

Bekjon's release from jail -- even after serving his full term -- caught many observers by surprise; it is simply assumed that the authorities will find a way to keep politicals in jail.

Bekjon was, in fact, sentenced to an additional three years in jail when his prison term was nearing its end. He was charged with and found guilty of undermining public order -- a rather strange accusation given the fact that he was inside prison.

But Bekjon says he appealed to a higher court, which dismissed the case, opening the path for his release.

"We hoped Bekjon would be set free, but we didn't expect it," Salih says.

But in recent interviews the normally outspoken Salih and the recently released Bekjon didn't want to speculate about Uzbek authorities' possible reasons for dismissing the second case and letting him go.

Steve Swerdlow, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, is more willing. He suggests the authorities may have decided that keeping Bekjon in jail would not be worth the additional bad press the Uzbek government would get.

Maybe they determined it would be easier to set him free, assuming a broken man would stay quiet.

Staying quiet is exactly what Bekjon seems to be doing.

"If you mind your own business, no one pressures you," Bekjon recently told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service about the conditions of political prisoners in Uzbek jails.

"I have been treated well. I've never been tortured," the 53-year-old former businessman said when asked about his time in jail, some of which was spent in solitary confinement.

Human rights defenders and relatives of numerous political prisoners, however, insist torture is rampant in Uzbek jails.

In what many believe is a conservative estimate, rights activist Surat Ikromov reported that nearly 40 inmates in Uzbekistan died of torture in 2010.

Human Rights Watch has documented very recent accounts of torture; it has lots of new proof and evidence that torture is happening everywhere in Uzbek prisons, says Swerdlow, who has met with many relatives of political prisoners in the country.

Perhaps, it's a reasonable decision on the part of Bekjon not to make political comments anymore. After all, Uzbek authorities are not known for tolerating any dissent and criticism of their policies. And Bekjon has 12 years of firsthand experience of Uzbek authorities' methods of dealing with people who disagree with them.

-- Farangis Najibullah