(Bishkek) – Rustam Usmanov, a peaceful political activist imprisoned arbitrarily in Uzbekistan for 19 years and brutally tortured, was finally freed on February 13, 2017, at the end of his prison term, Human Rights Watch said today. Usmanov, 69, a founder of Uzbekistan’s first private bank and a vocal government critic, had been imprisoned since 1998.

In 2012, days before his original 14-year sentence was due to end, he was convicted for “violations of prison rules” and sentenced to five more years in prison. Usmanov was repeatedly and brutally tortured while in prison.

“Rustam Usmanov and his family have suffered terribly for 19 years,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This is President Mirziyoyev’s chance to keep his campaign promises by seeing to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Usmanov and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”

Usmanov was the third political prisoner allowed to leave prison at the end of an extended prison term since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became acting president following the death in August 2016 of the long-time authoritarian leader Islam Karimov. Mirziyoyev became president in December 2016. A fourth prisoner, Muhammad Bekjanov, a journalist in jail on politically motivated charges since 1999, was released on February 22 at the end of an extended prison term.

During his campaign he promised increased accountability to citizens and acknowledged the lack of reform in key aspects of Uzbekistan’s society, including the economy and the criminal justice system. But he has taken no meaningful steps to free prisoners held on politically motivated charges.

President Mirziyoyev should direct the relevant authorities to thoroughly and meaningfully investigate credible allegations that Usmanov was tortured, that his sentence was arbitrarily extended, which was approved by judges in hearings that violated fair trial principles, and that he was denied appropriate medical care in prison, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities should allow him to resume his peaceful political activism. The Uzbek government should also immediately and unconditionally release the numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated and unfair trials.

In November 2013, the United Nations Committee Against Torture – a body of 10 independent experts that monitors governments’ implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – found that Usmanov and numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders were arbitrarily imprisoned in retaliation for their work and criticism of the government. The committee expressed concern that many wrongfully held activists have been subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.

Usmanov is an economist and businessman who founded Uzbekistan’s first private bank, Rustambank, in 1992. In the early 1990s he announced his support for the opposition Erk (Freedom) party and openly criticized police and security service abuses. In 1994, he ran for parliament. His son says that Usmanov’s name was removed from the ballot after he refused to pay a large bribe to an official in charge of registering candidates.

In 1995, security service officers detained him in Kyrgyzstan and forcibly returned him to Uzbekistan and held him for several days. At that time, the authorities detained Usmanov’s son for nearly two weeks, apparently to punish Usmanov for his support for the democratic opposition. After continued pressure by authorities, Usmanov left Uzbekistan and took up residence in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan, where he founded an economic research institute.

In 1998, while Usmanov was visiting his wife and three children in Tashkent, police arrested him on trumped-up charges of extortion, unlawful transactions of foreign currency, abuse of authority, and forgery. The Andijan Regional Court sentenced him to 14 years in prison. Evidence indicates that authorities brought the case in retaliation for his political ambitions. In 2012, days before his sentence was to end, he was convicted for “violations of prison rules” and sentenced to five more years in prison. Authorities informed Usmanov’s relatives and his lawyer about the allegations and extension only after he was convicted.

Usmanov told his relatives that he was tortured in prison. In January 2009, he announced a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment and was beaten severely as a result. In March 2009, authorities transferred him from Karshi prison to Jaslyk prison, where his health and treatment by prison authorities worsened. On one occasion, authorities placed him in solitary confinement in a cell where guards handcuffed him in a crucifixion position for four days in a row. Later that year he announced another hunger strike, but prison guards pushed a feeding tube down his throat and plugged his nostrils until he began to suffocate, ending his strike.

In late 2009, he said that he had been called in for a meeting with prison officials, who demanded US$100,000, saying that if they weren’t paid, his sons would be harmed. When he refused to pay, he was beaten savagely.

In an April 2010 meeting with his sons, they said afterward, his body was covered with bruises which he said came from beatings by prison guards. Usmanov said that he had been denied medical assistance and that prison guards had confiscated the medications his relatives brought. When his family visited him in November 2012, eight months after the authorities had added an additional five years to his sentence, he was severely depressed and passed a handkerchief to his son, on which he had written in blood, “SOS! 15 years of waiting for the Court! Try me or Kill me!”

“Usmanov suffered harrowing torture at the hands of Uzbek authorities, and his story is just one of thousands of victims of arbitrary imprisonment and ill-treatment,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the US and the EU, should use every means of influence at their disposal to reiterate their calls to President Mirziyoyev to release everyone being held unlawfully and arbitrarily under international standards.”