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An Uzbek journalist spent 18 years in jail. Today, he’s free.

Long-jailed Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov (left) speaks on the phone following his release. (Courtesy of Aygul Bekjan)

After nearly two decades of imprisonment, torture, beatings, solitary confinement and exposure to diseases like tuberculosis, the Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov has been freed.

His release Wednesday morning was no amnesty — he has served his initial sentence of 15 years and then some. In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, of which Uzbekistan was a part, Bekjanov and his brother published the Erk (Freedom) newspaper, which advocated for democracy. Instead, the authoritarian Islam Karimov came to power, and he banned Erk in 1994. Bekjanov and his family fled to his wife's home country, Ukraine, where he persevered as a pro-democracy activist.

Following a series of bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1999, Karimov rounded up and jailed dozens of dissidents. Bekjanov was kidnapped from his home in Ukraine and extradited to Uzbekistan, where he was swiftly put on trial. His testimony included allegations that he was forced through torture to confess involvement in the bombings.

When Bekjanov's wife was permitted to visit him about seven years into his sentence, she reported that he was still subject to brutal beatings in prison, which had caused him to lose all of his teeth. One of his legs was broken and received no treatment. He was deaf in one ear and hard-of-hearing in the other.

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His daughter, Aygul Bekjan, who now lives in Spokane, Wash., broke the news of her father's release on Facebook.

"Having mixed feelings today.... I'm so happy to tell everyone that my father is out of prison, but at the same time I'm so mad for the fact that he lost 18 years of his life for nothing!" she wrote. "Yes, he is free ... but he lost so much!!! I just pray he can rebuild his life! I know we will do everything we can to help him! I wish we could be there to embrace him and just cry together...."

Speaking by phone Wednesday morning, Bekjan said that she and her family were working with the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan to obtain a visa that would allow for the reunification of their family in the United States. She said he has a hernia that needs surgery, and still has no teeth nor the ability to hear very well.

"We haven't spoken to him properly yet because when we called he was in the car with my uncle, and we were just yelling and screaming," said Bekjan. "But he can't really hear us well. So we hope to speak to him when he gets to a quieter place."

In a statement, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, welcomed Bekjanov's release but called on Uzbekistan to do more to ensure the freedom of political dissidents.

“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” said Swerdlow.

A handful of longtime political prisoners have been released in recent months following the September death of Karimov. That has made some hopeful that his replacement, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, may see expediency in a softening of his government's policies.

Uzbekistan still ranks 166th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index. At least nine other journalists are currently jailed in Uzbekistan, according to Human Rights Watch. One of them is Bekjanov's colleague at Erk, Yusuf Ruzimuradov.

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