Apparently, there's a new form of penance in Uzbekistan.
Authorities there sent recently released prisoners to the ancient Silk Route city of Samarkand. There, they visited major attractions including the Al-Buhari Memorial Complex, Gur-i Emir (Tamerlane's grave), the observatory of Ulughbek, and...the tomb of Uzbekistan's first postindependence leader, Islam Karimov.
When Karimov was president, until his death in 2016, all these former inmates were imprisoned for alleged membership in banned Islamic groups.
The Tashkent provincial administration organized the pilgrimage.
"Those formerly convicted of religious crimes who had repented," according to the press service of Uzbekistan's Spiritual Board of Muslims, would spend two days visiting the complex and the grave in Samarkand.
All of the travelers were reportedly released under an amnesty declared by President Shavkat Mirziyoev at the end of 2017 in honor of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of Uzbekistan's post-Soviet constitution.
The December releases were part of the first mass amnesty declared since Uzbekistan became independent in late 1991. Some 2,700 people were freed.
The Tashkent provincial administration reportedly arranged for an unspecified number of this group from the area around the capital to be bused "in comfort" to Samarkand on December 28.
While it appears to be some form of reeducation or rehabilitation, the choice of reciting prayers at Karimov's grave might seem a little strange.
When Karimov was in power, those detained for membership in a banned Islamic group were almost certain to be convicted and sentenced to prison. In some cases, they had reportedly been beaten or tortured to extract confessions.
Most would have been sentenced to the harshest of Uzbekistan's prisons, places like Jaslyk in the desert of northwestern Uzbekistan, nicknamed the "House of Torture."
So what message are these former inmates supposed to glean from standing at the grave site of the man who was ultimately responsible for them being thrown in prison?
Their lives and probably those of their immediate family were ruined. Some of their brothers and male cousins, and their friends, probably fled Uzbekistan to escape prison sentences by association.
Karimov's regime was known to cast a wide net in its hunt for Islamic extremists. Uzbek authorities certainly apprehended authentic Islamic radicals. But there is reason to suspect that many of those caught in periodic crackdowns on suspected Islamic extremists were nothing more than devout Muslims.
The domestic political atmosphere and the obsession with internal security that thrived under Karimov appeared to tolerate such excesses.
So again, what's the message for those recently released prisoners?
That those times could return? That those days are over? That Karimov might have been an unsavory character but Mirziyoev is in charge now and he declared the amnesty that freed you all?
Or maybe the number of visitors to Karimov's gravesite has been dropping and someone wanted to bump up the attendance figures.
Whatever the case, it is a strange choice to bring a recently released prisoner to the gravesite of their jailer.
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