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Uzbekistan: Longest-Held Political Prisoner Free After Two Decades In Jail

Ahmadjon Odilov as a young man in a family photo provided to RFE/RL (Courtesy Photo) One of the most controversial figures in recent Uzbek history and the oldest political prisoner in the country, Ahmadjon Odilov, has been released from jail on the heels of a visit by a senior U.S. official.

Odilov, now 83, was once regarded as a potential rival to President Islam Karimov with considerable influence within the opposition.

Odilov's freedom was granted two days after Mutabar Tojiboeva, a human rights defender and government critic, was released on parole on June 2 after serving nearly half of an eight-year prison term.

Both were mentioned in a recent letter by the Miami-based International Society for Human Rights appealing for a release of political prisoners.

The son of prominent rights activist Ahmadjon Madumarov was also released this week, but his family said he had served his full seven-year jail term.

Victim Or 'Butcher'?

Odilov was released on June 4 and reunited with his family near the eastern Uzbek city of Namangan. His younger brother, Mominjon Odilov, confirmed the news to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

"We are very happy. We are at Ahmadjon's house now," Mominjon Odilov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service shortly after their reunion. "He is in good shape and healthy, thank God. We are happy. He is praying now. He is well."

Odilov spent more than 20 years in prison -- first in Moscow, then in Uzbekistan -- after being detained in 1984 after Soviet officials investigated corruption charges in the Uzbek cotton industry. Some call him the "Butcher from Pap" -- where he lived -- while others say he is a "victim of the Karimov government."

The criminal case against him -- dubbed the "Cotton Case" -- was one of the biggest of its time. In the 1970s, Odilov set up an agro-industrial complex that included several collective farms and employed some 40,000 people. It became one of the most successful entities in the former Soviet Union, and brought Odilov the respect of the Communist Party bosses as well as many medals, orders, and titles, including the highest Soviet prize, the "Hero of Socialist Work."

His industrial complex in Pap, near Namangan, became a showcase of a successful socialist economy that was shown to almost every visiting foreign delegation. The venture translated into considerable influence and wealth.

Influential Figure

Some said Odilov was one of the key figures in the political decision-making of the then-Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (UzSSR). He was believed to have had great influence in appointing political figures in the UzSSR as well as distributing economic and financial wealth.

In 1983, Moscow officials launched a series of investigations against alleged corruption in the Uzbek cotton industry.

Television and newspaper reports pictured Odilov as a cruel man who ran his entity as a medieval king, showing no mercy toward his foes. Reports said he had private prisons to keep people who refused to follow his orders. Rumors spread in the Soviet Union that Odilov had made millions of rubles and kept them in gold bars buried under his tomato bushes. More than 1,000 people, including many of Odilov's family members, were detained.

The "Cotton Case" was seen as an attempt by the new Soviet government under Yury Andropov to redistribute wealth that the cotton industry was bringing to Soviet coffers -- as well as the pockets of the communist nomenklatura.

The case brought notoriety to two investigators, Telman Gdlyan and Nikolai Ivanov, who were dispatched to Uzbekistan by Moscow officials. Both Gdlyan and Ivanov were later sacked from their positions in the Soviet prosecutor's office amid the change in Soviet leaders in the mid-1980s.

With the "Cotton Case" still open, Odilov remained in a Moscow prison for eight years without being charged.

Odilov was briefly set free after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. He reportedly set up an independent political party, Temur's Justice Party. But he was imprisoned again in 1993.

Some say Uzbek President Karimov saw Odilov as a rival and felt threatened by his influence and the respect that Odilov garnered from the opposition.

Odilov's prison term was prolonged several times as the Uzbek prison administration accused him of keeping drugs in his cell and violating prison rules.

Rights Questions

Many human rights organizations urged Uzbek authorities to free Odilov, who is said to be nearly blind and suffering from other health problems.

Odilov's release comes along with that of Hamidullo Madumarov, the son of prominent rights activist Ahmadjon Madumarov.

Hamidullo Madumarov was imprisoned on charges of anticonstitutional activity, an article in the Uzbek Criminal Code frequently used against members of unregistered religious organizations.

Speaking to RFE/RL on June 5, however, Ahmadjon Madumarov said his son was released only after serving his full term. "He was given a seven-year prison term and he did spend seven years in jail," Madumarov said. "I met him and now we are on our way to [our native city of] Margilan."

Madumarov said his other son -- imprisoned on similar charges -- remained in jail despite the fact that his prison term ended last month.

The release of both Odilov and Madumarov comes after a visit to Tashkent by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher.

Boucher said on June 2 after meeting with President Karimov that talks focused on improving human rights and that some progress had been made.

On June 2, human rights defender and government critic Tojiboeva was released on parole after serving nearly half of her eight-year prison term.

In April, the International Society for Human Rights, wrote a letter to Karimov urging him to release political prisoners, including Odilov and Tojiboeva.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says at least 11 more human rights defenders remain in Uzbekistan's prisons -- one of them in a closed psychiatric ward -- for politically motivated reasons.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondents Shuhrat Babajanov and Zamira Eshanova contributed to this report

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