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Imprisoned for 18 years, pro-democracy Uzbekistan newspaper editor hopes to join family in Spokane

UPDATED: Fri., March 3, 2017

Up until the day of his scheduled release, Aygul Bekjanov still didn’t believe her father was getting out of prison.

For 18 years, Uzbek newspaper editor Muhammad Bekjanov barely survived behind bars, held captive by an authoritarian government that tortured him for writing pro-democracy articles and exposing forced labor and other human rights violations.

Under a new president, the government finally released him on Feb. 22 at the end of his sentence. Now, Aygul, her mother and her sisters are trying to get him to Spokane to reunite their family after nearly two decades apart.

“My mom was screaming, ‘Put him on the phone! I want to hear his voice!’ ” Aygul Bekjanov said of the release day.

Aygul, who also goes by Natalie, and her younger sister Kamila were raised in Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. When the union dissolved, Islam Karimov, the president of the former Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, stayed on.

Bekjanov was active in the country’s pro-democracy movement and was the editor of Erk (Freedom), the newspaper of the opposition party. His brother, Muhammad Salih, ran for president against Karimov in the country’s first 1991 election. Karimov won an overwhelming majority of the official vote count, thanks to falsified counts and propaganda, and was crowned president, an office he held until his death last August.

Aygul said that’s when things started getting difficult for her family.

“We were under surveillance constantly,” she said. Police would search the family’s apartment nearly every day. Copies of Erk, books and family photos were confiscated.

Sometimes, officers would bang on the door at 3 a.m., rousing her pregnant mother, Nina, out of bed. The Bekjanovs, fearful that police would plant drugs or weapons as a pretext for arresting them, enlisted neighbors to follow the officers during their searches.

By 1993, Bekjanov fled the country to Turkey. The following year, his family left after Uzbek police confiscated their entire apartment. Aygul said she, Kamila and her mother took a bus to the Kazakhstan border, then walked more than an hour through snow in spring shoes, trying to find a hotel to stay for the night. Eventually, they ended up in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Nina’s home country. Bekjanov met them there shortly after.

The family’s youngest daughter was born in Kiev. Bekjanov resumed publishing Erk, sending copies back to Uzbekistan. When his fingers grew tired of typing, he’d pay his daughters to be his scribes.

He wrote about things the government wanted to keep quiet, Aygul said, including forced sterilizations and the practice of forcing roughly a million people to abandon their jobs and work for weeks harvesting cotton, Uzbekistan’s main export, with little or no pay.

The family stayed in Kiev for about five years, “thinking we were safe,” Aygul said. But when Nina took her daughters to visit family in another part of the country in March 1999, Uzbek police came for Bekjanov.

“He was basically kidnapped,” Aygul said. Security forces broke into the family’s apartment shortly after they left, as if they’d been waiting for him to be alone. For four months, his family had no idea where he was or whether he was alive or dead. They’d later learn Uzbek forces bribed Ukrainian officials to smuggle him across the border and into a prison in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city.

“He was immediately tortured, suffocated with a bag over his head,” said Steve Swerdlow, the Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, who worked on Bekjanov’s case with the family.

Bekjanov was kidnapped right before Uzbekistan’s next round of sham elections, when Karimov’s government was arresting lots of political dissidents.

“Basically everyone that was associated with the Erk party was either killed, imprisoned or fled the country,” Swerdlow said.

Under torture, Bekjanov and other political prisoners falsely confessed to being involved in a recent series of bombings in Tashkent. He was convicted at trial in August 1999. Aygul believes the government engineered the bombings as a pretext for locking up dissidents.

“Bekjanov was vilified as an organizer of a coup,” Swerdlow said. “Karimov considered him a personal enemy.”

Almost immediately, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine told the family they were eligible to come to the U.S. as political refugees and expedited the process. The Ukrainian government didn’t want to let the family leave, so American officials arranged for them to travel to Poland and fly to the U.S. from there. Not wanting to tip off Ukrainian authorities, they carried return tickets from Poland to Ukraine and took only a small suitcase and about $50 in cash.

By 2000, Aygul and Nina were on a plane to a city they’d never heard of: Spokane. Not seeing the city buildings, Aygul remembered thinking she was being sent to a remote forest when the plane approached for landing.

Thinking they hadn’t been able to get plane tickets, World Relief workers didn’t meet the family at the airport, so they were briefly stranded with only a handful of basic English phrases to get by. A police officer bought them food and coffee and eventually helped them get in touch with World Relief.

“We were very lucky because we had only nice people,” said Nina in her native Russian, speaking through Aygul. The younger Bekjanov daughters followed soon after.

The family kept in touch with Bekjanov as best they could. Both Aygul and Kamila became U.S. citizens, which meant they would have to apply for visas to visit Uzbekistan, something the government wasn’t likely to grant. Nina retained her Ukrainian passport and was able to visit her husband several times, usually for a three-day stay, Aygul said. Other family members living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia also visited.

Bekjanov’s dispatches from prison were grim. Officers beat him so badly they temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body and left him with a broken leg and arm. After the beating, he was left in a cell with only a dog dish of water on the floor, but he was so badly injured he couldn’t crawl to it and drink for nearly three days.

After a 2006 visit, Nina reported her husband was missing most of his teeth from repeated beatings. His hearing had gotten much worse. He contracted tuberculosis, though he was able to get treatment for it because international workers were visiting the prison at the time.

He was trying to write a book about his time in prison, but guards would confiscate the pages as soon as they discovered them.

Sometimes, guards would put him in solitary confinement for months with little or no explanation. There, he kept track of bugs living inside the cell. Once, he told Aygul he tracked the movements of a bird that flew by his window every day.

“He thought that was the most exciting thing,” she said.

Aside from occasional visits, Bekjanov had almost no links to the outside world for nearly two decades. Letters mentioning current events or politics were censored or not delivered. Aygul said she once wrote to tell him Barack Obama had been elected president, but prison officials wouldn’t let even a casual mention of current events through.

One of his few glimpses of culture was a screening of “The Passion of the Christ,” something the prison played “just to agitate the Muslim prisoners,” Aygul said. But, “he loved it.”

In 2012, Bekjanov was scheduled for release, and Nina flew to Uzbekistan to be with him. But just days before he was due to get out, the government extended his sentence five years after convicting him of violating prison regulations. Swerdlow said one of the charges was peeling carrots incorrectly in the prison kitchen.

“They just make it up. They don’t even try,” Aygul said. His cell mates testified against him, likely under torture or the threat of it, she said.

Human Rights Watch picked up the case in 2013. By then, most people had forgotten about it, Swerdlow said.

The U.S. government also refused to push Uzbekistan to release political prisoners, Aygul and Swerdlow said, under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In spite of being a brutal authoritarian state, the U.S. has seen Uzbekistan as an ally in the war on terror. Terror suspects were flown there to be interrogated, a CIA practice known as extraordinary rendition. And under Obama, the U.S. depended on Uzbekistan for access to Afghanistan.

“By and large for most of this last decade or more, the U.S. had a very muted soft policy,” Swerdlow said.

Uzbekistan expelled a Human Rights Watch director from the country in 2010. The country keeps between 10,000 and 12,000 political prisoners, the group estimates, more than the rest of the former Soviet Union combined.

As Bekjanov’s 2017 release date approached, Aygul said the family didn’t want to get too hopeful. But in August, Uzbek President Karimov died, and Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the new president. Though he continued his predecessor’s repressive policies, he also began letting older political prisoners out of jail after they’d served their sentences.

“He doesn’t have the personal vendetta against these people,” Aygul said.

And on Feb. 22, the Uzbek government finally let Bekjanov walk free at 63. At the time of his release, he, along with a colleague from Erk, were believed to be the longest-imprisoned journalists in the world.

Now, the family talks to Bekjanov every day. Kamila said one of the first things he did was try to talk his daughters into getting more education. Though she works as a nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center and told her father that’s a good job in America, he pestered her about getting a master’s degree.

“He still has his sense of humor. They didn’t break him,” Kamila said.

Bekjanov has seen photos of his two grandchildren, Aygul’s 6-year-old son and 17-month-old daughter. But he’s never met them in person.

Technically, he remains under supervision in Uzbekistan for a year, though the family is working with the U.S. Embassy and human rights groups to reduce that time.

When he went to prison, he still had a Soviet Union passport and now has no documentation. He has a hernia that needs surgery and other health problems that will require medical care.

He’ll apply for refugee status so he can come see his family. Aygul said the U.S. Embassy has promised his application will be expedited.

“We talk every day now,” she said. “He just wants to see how we live.”

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