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Uzbekistan Frees Jailed Activist Ahead Of President's Meeting With Trump

Fakhriddin Tillayev (right) after his release with fellow activist Azam Turgunov

Uzbekistan has freed an opposition and human rights activist after imprisoning him for more than four years in a case that watchdogs called politically motivated.

The May 12 release of Fahriddin Tillaev, who was an activist with the Erk (Freedom) party, comes as Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is promising reform following more than two decades of repressive rule under Islam Karimov, whose death was reported on September 2, 2016.

It also comes ahead of Mirziyoev's planned meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on May 16 in the Central Asian leader's first visit to the White House.

Tillaev, 46, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in a telephone interview that he was granted early release and walked out of prison at around 7:30 a.m. on May 12.

"They told me that I'm free. They allowed me to review the court's decision, asked me to sign some documents, and escorted me outside," he said.

Tillaev and another opposition activist, Nuraddin Jumaniyozov, were sentenced to more than eight years in prison in March 2014 after being convicted of human trafficking. They were found guilty of facilitating illegal labor migration from Uzbekistan to neighboring Kazakhstan.

Human rights advocates condemned the trial and the verdict, saying the case was politically motivated due to the opposition activism of the two men.

Jumaniyazov died in prison in December 2016 at the age of 69.

The lawyer for the two men alleged that they were tortured while in pretrial detention but that investigators refused to look into the claims, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Tillaev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on May 12 that the torture continued in prison, including needles stuck under his nails and between his toes.

"They stripped me naked and threw me out in the freezing cold, poured cold water over me," Tillaev said, adding that "they did whatever they wanted with me."

"I regret the time I spent in prison," Tillaev continued, "because I was robbed of freedom, will, everything."

HRW's Central Asia researcher, Steve Swerdlow, said on Twitter that "while thousands remain behind bars in Uzbekistan on politically motivated charges," there are now "no human rights activists jailed" in Uzbekistan following Tillaev's release.

Swerdlow called on Mirziyoev's government to provide rehabilitation and medical treatment to those who have been freed.

Mirziyoev has carried out reforms in the government, particularly in the powerful security services and Interior Ministry.

In October, HRW said that Uzbek authorities had taken "some positive steps" during Mirziyoev's first year but still needed to make "sustainable" improvements on human rights.

In a report released on March 28, HRW said journalists and other critics of the government in Uzbekistan remain under pressure from legal restrictions, politically motivated prosecutions, and fear-induced self-censorship.