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Uzbekistan: Freed Rights Activist Calls Uzbek Prisons 'Islands Of Torture'

Mutabar Tojiboeva (Courtesy Photo) Prominent Uzbek activist Mutabar Tojiboeva, who was released from prison on June 2 after almost 1,000 days in detention, says she will continue to campaign for human rights, despite her ordeal.

Tojiboeva was serving an eight-year sentence for criticizing officials for violently ending a protest in the southern town of Andijon in 2005.

"There is only one thing I can liken my life [in prison] to: Uzbekistan's prisons are like islands of torture," Tojiboeva told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service shortly after reuniting with her family. "They are isolated from society and from people."

Tojiboeva, who is from Ferghana in the country's east, was arrested in October 2005 and sentenced to eight years in prison on more than a dozen charges, including slander and extortion.

Independent observers and human rights activists said the charges were fabricated and aimed at silencing Tojiboeva, a fierce critic of the Uzbek government.

Deteriorating Health

Tojiboeva, who is 46 years old, had sent letters from prison saying she was being ill-treated and tortured. She was temporarily held in a psychiatric detention center and forced to undergo medical treatment in 2006.

Domestic and international organizations had long urged the Uzbek authorities to release Tojiboeva, whose health was deteriorating.

Tojiboeva's release came as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher visited Tashkent for high-level meetings with Uzbek leaders. Boucher said on June 2 after meeting with President Islam Karimov that talks had focused on improving human rights and that some progress had been made.

The Uzbek government has a practice of freeing jailed human-rights defenders ahead of important meetings. Earlier this year, a number of opponents of the government were set free ahead of a key bilateral meeting between Uzbekistan and the European Union, which has suspended sanctions imposed against Uzbekistan following the Andijon violence. Independent observers and human rights organizations called the move by Tashkent mere window dressing on the country's poor human-rights practices.

Not Told Of Release

Tojiboeva says her release came as a surprise to her and her fellow inmates and that she was not told until the last minute.

"One of the inmates said, 'There will be visitors tomorrow and they want to hide you in another prison.' So I expected to be transferred to the Tashkent prison," she says. "The prison administration and representatives of the Interior Ministry were standing there, and I asked them where I was going. They didn't say anything."

Tojiboeva will remain on parole for the next three years.

"It means for the next three years they will watch every step I take," she says. "If I say anything unpleasant about those in power or for any other government officials, they will find a reason to put me behind bars again."

Despite that pressure, Tojiboeva says she will continue to fight for human rights and the freedom of those men and women living in the harsh Uzbek prison conditions.

"You know, as I said, Uzbekistan's prisons are islands of torture. I cannot ignore the plight of imprisoned men and women caught on those islands," Tojiboeva says. "I believe I have to continue my activity now in order to end torture in Uzbek prisons and defend the rights of male and female inmates. This is my duty now."

Top Human Rights Award

Earlier this month, Tojiboeva won an international human rights prize -- the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders -- which is awarded jointly by the world's 10 leading human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Hans Thoolen, the chairman of the jury for the award, described Tojiboeva as "an exceptionally brave woman in a country where standing up for human rights is a dangerous activity, which can lead to imprisonment and death."

Tojiboeva's release might make it possible for her to receive the award in person in Geneva later this year.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Shuhrat Babajanov contributed to this report

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