One of the world’s longest incarcerated journalists, Muhammad Bekjanov, has been freed after spending 18 years in an Uzbek jail.

 

Bekjanov was held in one of Uzbekistan’s most notorious and feared prisons, Kagan. A prominent journalist and advocate of Uzbek democracy, Bekjanov was officially arrested after claims he was involved with the 1999 bombings in Tashkent. However, it is widely believed that former President Islam Karimov, used the bombings as a way of detaining those associated with the publication Erk.

Erk (which translates to mean Freedom) was set up by Bekjanov’s brother, Muhammad Salih. During the 1991 election, the newspaper was a main source of the opposition and promoted democratic values. Karimov, who later won the election, was the First Secretary under the previous communist regime. Karimov later went to extreme lengths to limit any democratic development, including attacking the families of major journalists as a means of silencing them. Erk was consequently banned in 1994.

Undeterred by this, Bekajnov continued to support the publication from its underground base, and remained a leading voice in the fight for democracy in the Uzbek nation. However, he was later arrested in Kiev on March 15, 1999 after the Tashkent bombings. He was captured along with his colleague, Yusef Ruzimuradov, who unfortunately still remains in prison.

Amid the trial, claims circulated that Bekjanov was tortured during interrogation and forced to give evidence that would incriminate him. This was later confirmed in 2003 by a leading witness of the then prosecution.

Bekjanov’s torture continued throughout his imprisonment. In 2005, he was allowed to give an interview for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, from a prison hospital. He revealed he had tuberculosis, and was deaf in his right ear because of the torture. His wife later visited him in 2006, after which she disclosed the torture was still continuing and had caused Bekjanov to lose most of his teeth.

Bekjanov was originally meant to serve 15 years in prison, however his sentence was increased days before his initial release because he ‘violated prison rules’. It was later revealed that the claimed violations included trivial things like ‘not peeling carrots correctly’. Freedom of speech advocates PEN concluded: ‘PEN assesses that Muhammad Bekjanov was detained solely for exercising his right to free expression as guaranteed by Articles 19 and 22 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is calling for his freedom to travel and join his family in the United States’.

Thankfully, PEN’s calls have now been answered, and Bekjanov has been released with a one year travel ban. This follows the new presidency of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was elected in August 2016. Mirziyoyev has pledged to reform Uzbek’s controversial and often corrupt criminal justice system.

Bekjanov’s release comes at an important time in media history. We are reminded of how vital promoting our freedom of speech is, and how important circulating news can be to a nation. We are also made aware of just how much some journalists have risked, and continue to do so, all in the name of free speech.

At a time when President Trump is making waves with the term ‘fake news’, and almost dictating what can and cannot be revealed to the media, exercising political expression alongside freedom of speech remains our most important task as young journalists. The incarceration of journalists continues to happen throughout the developing (and sometimes even developed) world, and may even become standard practise in our Western environment under Trump’s new watchful regime. We must recognise these triumphs, remember the reporters still wrongly behind bars, and remind ourselves why and who we continue writing for.