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Uzbek Memoirist Returns Home, Only To Find Himself Behind Bars

Uzbek authorities said this week that the criminal case against Nurullo Otahonov was only opened earlier this year, well after former dictator Islam Karimov was out of the picture.

Nurullo Otahonov, a former editor whose religiously themed memoirs cast Uzbekistan's previous regime in a harsh light, this month became one of the country's first exiled dissidents to return home following the death last year of longtime President Islam Karimov.

But the homecoming from Istanbul was cut short by Otahonov's immediate arrest at Tashkent International Airport on September 27, raising questions about the new leadership's high-profile efforts to improve Uzbekistan's image and calls by President Shavkat Mirziyoev for Uzbeks abroad to come home.

Now, Otahonov's family has warned that Uzbek lawyers are afraid to represent the 63-year-old author, who remains in custody on sedition and extremism charges that reportedly stem from his two-year-old book, titled These Days.

"Two [or] three defense lawyers told me that the authorities could punish them for defending Nurullo Otahonov's case," the author's wife, Gulnara Otahonova, told RFE/RL from Tashkent on September 28.

Officials have said the charges against Otahonov (aka Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon) include public calls to overthrow Uzbekistan's government, producing or possessing extremist religious material, and possessing symbols of religious extremist and terrorist organizations.

His book, published from exile in Turkey in 2016, criticized decades of policies under Karimov, including his crackdown on Islam.

It was deemed extremist by the government's Committee for Religious Issues in May, eight months after Mirziyoev took the reins of government in one of post-Soviet Central Asia's more repressive systems amid outside calls for democratic reform and rule of law.

In August, Mirziyoev's government announced that thousands of names had been taken off a blacklist created under Karimov identifying Uzbeks whose presence in the country was deemed undesirable.

Never necessarily a household name among Uzbeks, Otahonov served as director of the Movarounnahr publishing house and chief editor of the moderate religious magazine Hidoyat until he was dismissed from both posts in 2013.

He left for Turkey in 2015, reportedly at the invitation of a publishing house there. But the pressure at home increased when Uzbek authorities raided Otahonov's home and put him on a blacklist of suspected extremists, prompting him to remain abroad.

Uzbek authorities said this week that the criminal case against Otahonov was only opened earlier this year, well after Karimov was out of the picture.

Deputy Tashkent police chief Doniyor Toshkhojaev told reporters on September 28 that Otahonov had been charged in absentia and put on a wanted list after the criminal investigation was launched on May 12.

Investigators have not received any documents suggesting that Otahonov requested an "amnesty" or told them he was returning to the country, Toshkhojaev added.

Before leaving Istanbul, Otahonov told RFE/RL that he decided to return to his homeland after Mirziyoev's recent public call for all Uzbek intellectuals living abroad to return despite the advice of "friends [who] advised me not to return to Uzbekistan for some time."

Otahonova said her husband had been handcuffed and taken to a police station, and was not allowed to speak to relatives waiting for him at the airport.

Police later informed her that her husband was detained because of a probe launched into the contents of his book.

If found guilty, Otahonov could face up to 13 years in prison.

Deputy police chief Toshkhojaev said that if Otahonov's innocence was demonstrated or his case fell within the scope of an amnesty, police would act accordingly.

With reporting by and Reuters