There are places in the world where telling the truth can cost you your freedom. In my home country, Uzbekistan, those who oppose the repressive government can be subjected to torture and ill-treatment in order to extract false confessions to lock them away.
I know this all too well, because my father, Muhammad Bekzhanov, is now languishing in an Uzbekistan prison. He and his colleague were arrested 16 years ago. Today, they remain the world’s longest-imprisoned journalists.
My father was the editor-in-chief of a newspaper for a banned political opposition party. He wrote about human rights. He wrote about women’s rights. He wrote about the oppressive nature of the government. He wasn’t naïve about how those in power would react. He fled with us to Ukraine in 1993 after a campaign of harassment, persecution and intimidation. But even then he wasn’t safe.
Six years later, during a brutal crackdown on outspoken critics, hundreds of suspects were detained, including members of banned political opposition parties and their families. My father did not escape the authorities’ notice. He was kidnapped and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan and held without communication in detention for over a month.
At trial, my father and his five co-defendants described the brutal torture they had suffered in pretrial detention. They were beaten with rubber truncheons and plastic bottles filled with water, suffocated and given electric shocks until my father, broken with pain, felt forced to “confess.”
Their courageous description of torture might as well have fallen on deaf ears. The court did not take any of my father’s allegations of torture into account when it issued a verdict. His lawyers were given only 40 minutes to present their case, and then the court sentenced my father to 15 years in prison, based on a confession wrenched from him in a torture chamber, and that he retracted during the hearing.
Meanwhile, my sisters, mother and I have made our home in Spokane. We have grown up here without our father. He has missed proms and weddings and the births of grandchildren. My youngest sister remembers him only through photographs.
He was supposed to be released in early 2012. But as we eagerly awaited his freedom after nearly 13 years, our family was dealt another cruel blow: My father was sentenced to another four years and eight months for allegedly breaking prison rules. Why would he do this with his release so near? It’s not believable.
My mother was allowed to see him for the first time in 2004. His right side was paralyzed from a brutal beating. His leg and arm were broken. He was left lying in his own blood for days, with no food or water.
That he has survived this long under these conditions is a testament to his strength. But his strength and our love are not enough.
While we beg for our father’s release, and for a full investigation into the torture he has endured, Uzbekistan must be made a safe place for truth-telling. The government may not listen to our family’s voices alone, but they cannot ignore millions of voices across the globe. We hope that they will listen to world leaders who might persuade them not just to release my father, but to prohibit torture for all prisoners, so no one else will have their family ripped apart on false and violent pretenses.
I long to introduce my father to his grandchildren, and to show him the beauty of our new home. I want to show him the waterfalls and the evergreens. I want to show him this place that has been our refuge all of these years.
But I am afraid that the Uzbekistani authorities will never allow that to happen. There is nothing to stop them from prolonging his ordeal for another four years, or more. My father is not just being imprisoned. He is being slowly and persistently tortured.
While Uzbekistan and its people may seem too distant for the average American to help, that doesn’t have to be true. By writing letters to elected leaders or signing petitions by organizations like Amnesty International, people in Spokane can show they care about freedom of the press and freedom from torture – for my father, for Uzbekistan, for people everywhere.
My family and I will never stop fighting for the freedoms my father defended, but lost. Everyone’s voice matters, and as my father knows all too well, the power of the written word – or tweet – or email – cannot be underestimated.
Aigul Bekzhanova graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in international studies and works as an interpreter.
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