Uzbekistan this week released prominent rights activist Ganihon Mamathonov after eight years in prison on fraud and bribery charges widely seen as politically motivated.
He is one of nearly a dozen high-profile activists, opposition figures, and journalists regarded by other activists and watchdog groups as political prisoners who have been freed from Uzbek jails in the year since President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power.
Mirziyoev’s administration has also removed around 16,000 people from a so-called blacklist of potential religious extremists and vowed to help them to reintegrate “into society.”
The moves -- coupled with modest experiments like live talk shows and the pending elimination of exit visas -- have sparked hopes of a new willingness to pursue more liberal policies than those of Mirziyoev's predecessor, the late Islam Karimov.
Rights groups and experts have welcomed the tentative steps but are calling for more widespread and thorough reforms.
“This is definitely the moment of hope,” says Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose group cites 10 significant prisoner releases under Miriziyoev.
Former lawmaker Samandar Kukanov and Muhammad Bekjonov, an independent journalist and brother of an exiled opposition leader, were freed after 23 and 18 years in prison, respectively. More recently, independent journalist Solijon Abdurahmonov and rights activist Agzam Farmonov were freed just days before Mamathonov’s release.
“The number [of releases] is significantly greater than in Karimov’s time, when on average one or two political prisoners would be freed per year,” Swerdlow says.
However, in a country where thousands of others remain in prison for cases seen as politically charged, Swerdlow described the recent releases as “a drop in a bucket.”
Swerdlow said the releases have spurred optimism that “Mirziyoev will free a larger number in the next two months and beyond” as Uzbekistan marks the 25th anniversary of its post-Soviet constitution on December 8.
Uzbek authorities have also taken tentative steps to loosen other restrictions, such as allowing the tightly controlled state television to introduce live talk shows on which government officials faced journalists. The live programs were introduced in early April after Mirziyoev demanded publicly that state TV end the “sycophantic adulation” of public officials and focus on issues faced by ordinary Uzbeks.
The live talk shows were abruptly halted by authorities in August, however.
Uzbekistan has also announced that it will abolish exit visas starting in January 2019. The requirement for exit visas has long been used by authorities to prevent government critics from traveling abroad, and they are by most accounts a source of bribes for corrupt officials.
In stark contrast to decades of eroding regional ties under his predecessor, Mirziyoev has conspicuously sought better relations with Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors, reopening borders, reestablishing transport links, and easing visa procedures. He has paid multiple visits to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, signing trade and investment deals, and resolving border disputes.
The changes have been dubbed the Uzbek “thaw.”
“Uzbekistan is not necessarily making huge leaps in democracy or human rights, but because the bar is so low in Uzbekistan, even small changes matter,” says Bakhtiyor Nishonov, deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute in Washington.
While most of the recently freed prisoners had already served nearly all of their lengthy sentences, Nishonov says, the Karimov regime earned a reputation for extending the sentences of political prisoners.
Uzbekistan still tightly controls state media and has all but eliminated independent media and political dissent. Few dare to publicly criticize or challenge Mirziyoev or his policies.
Quoting recently released prisoners and family members of inmates in Uzbekistan, Swerdlow says that the mistreatment of prisoners, including beatings, is still rampant.
Swerdlow says a former prisoner described prison officials “brutally beating up” inmates in the Bekobod prison facility in April, allegedly to prevent them from complaining to a visiting Uzbek human rights ombudsman.
However, Swerdlow, who visited Uzbekistan in August, says that in an unprecedented move by the authorities, HRW was given access to high-level government officials, civil activists, and family members of current political prisoners.
It remains unclear if any official has ever been brought to justice for the mistreatment of inmates, wrongfully arresting activists, or placing people on blacklists.
Described by some as an old-guard new president, Mirziyoev was part of Karimov’s inner circle for two decades and had served as prime minister since 2003. In all that time, Mirziyoev was never regarded by observers as a proponent of democratic reform.
Experts generally agree that, at the very least, Mirziyoev is serious about improving Uzbekistan’s image abroad, especially to attract foreign investment to boost the country’s economy.
Alex Melikishvili, a senior analyst with IHS Country Risk Analysis and Forecasting, says the prison releases and the curtailment of the blacklist are “cosmetic measures,” but he also suggests they indicate a certain willingness in Tashkent to relax social controls.
However, Melikishvili warns that other developments -- including the arrest of independent journalist Bobomurod Abdulloev in September -- “demonstrate that the talk around the 'Mirziyoev thaw' is premature at this point.”
So should Uzbekistan watchers lower their expectations or at least temper them to allow time for Mirziyoev to dismantle the repressive political system created by his predecessor?
Both Melikishvili and Nishanov say that Mirziyoev recognizes that his power is checked by the Karimov era's redoubtable security services and individuals with considerable influence over politics and business.
Melikishvili cites the example of Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) chief Rustam Inoyatov as a possible brake on reforms.
“Although Mirziyoev has taken some steps to weaken Inoyatov, such as returning control over interior troops from the Committee of National Security to the Interior Ministry, opposition to his reform agenda in the security service and parts of law enforcement is still high,” Melikishvili says.
Only Mirziyoev himself appears to know whether planned changes will be limited to a smattering of releases of political prisoners and a short-lived easing of the state's chokehold on free speech.
Stopping there would presumably do little to convince critics at home and abroad that he is the man to change Uzbekistan for the better.