When Uzbek president Islam Karimov died in 2016, Muhammad Bekjanov was the only person in his prison celebrating.
“Everybody else was scared,” he said, speaking in Russian through his daughter, Aygul.
Bekjanov, a pro-democracy journalist imprisoned in the Central Asian country since 1999, thought the death of the country’s longtime autocrat might be a turning point in his case.
“I started thinking about freedom that moment,” he said.
After serving 18 years behind bars, enduring beatings, starvation, solitary confinement and almost no contact with the outside world, Bekjanov was reunited with his family on Sunday, July 15.
His wife, Nina, daughters and grandchildren met him at the Seattle airport and flew with him back to Spokane, where they’ve resettled.
“It was so surreal,” Aygul said. The family had been talking with him daily over video chat, but still couldn’t believe he was actually coming to Spokane.
Now, Bekjanov is adjusting to life in the U.S. while advocating for press freedom and democracy in Uzbekistan.
The country was part of the Soviet Union, and when that union began breaking up in the early 1990s, Bekjanov’s brother, Muhammah Salih, founded Erk, a pro-democracy party (the name means “freedom”). Bekjanov was the editor of the party newspaper of the same name.
The eight-page publication had sections for politics, literature, history and more. Bekjanov said they wrote openly about social issues and problems, including child slave labor being used to harvest cotton and the forced sterilization of poor women.
“All of the government papers would just be praising the president,” he said. “People stopped actually asking for help from the government. They started coming to us.”
Bekjanov’s wife, Nina, described Uzbekistan as a police state. She was arrested twice as a teenager and said it was routine for police to arrest young women to rape them. Family connections got her out of jail before she was victimized.
In spite of living in an authoritarian country, Bekjanov said he wasn’t afraid to publish the truth.
“If I was afraid, I wouldn’t have been imprisoned,” he said.
Thanks to falsified votes and propaganda, when Karimov was re-elected president in 1991, the family came under increasing surveillance. Bekjanov fled first, and the family followed, reuniting in Ukraine in 1993. He continued publishing from abroad, and the family lived in Kiev.
But when Nina took her daughters to visit family in another part of Ukraine, police came for Bekjanov, kidnapping him and smuggling him across the border in 1999. Other members of Erk who hadn’t fled the country were killed or imprisoned.
During his incarceration, Bekjanov said he was held in nine different prisons across the country. Each one had its own style of torture, which was routine for new prisoners.
One prison would hit him with a stick 40 times across the soles of his feat, he said, pointing to the spots on his body where he was beaten. Then, they moved on to his legs, beating them so badly they broke. He couldn’t walk for a month.
For part of his sentence, he was held at Jaslyk, a prison in a remote part of northwest Uzbekistan infamous for torturing prisoners. There, he said, prisoners were put on the fourth floor of a staircase and made to walk to the bottom while being beaten constantly by guards lined along the stairs.
Years of torture left their marks on Bekjanov’s body. His hearing is partially gone after so many beatings, so his daughters repeat questions loudly when talking to him. On the flight from New York to Seattle, he passed out on the plane, likely because his blood pressure rose too high.
Still, when asked how his health is after so many years being denied medical care and tortured, he waves away any concern.
“He always says he’s fine,” Aygul said.
Bekjanov’s release came six months after Karimov’s death, on Feb. 22, 2017. Though the Uzbek president was succeeded by another autocrat, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the new leader didn’t share his predecessor’s personal vendetta against Erk members, and freed many well-known journalists from imprisonment, including Bekjanov.
Nina was able to visit her husband in Uzbekistan during the year he had to spend on monitored release. His daughters, who are naturalized U.S. citizens, couldn’t get permission to travel to see him.
Bekjanov used the time to write the first volume of his book, which chronicles his time as a journalist and his imprisonment through 2006. It’s called “On the Other Side of Fear” and is being translated from Uzbek into Russian, Turkish and English.
He tried repeatedly to start writing it in prison, but he wasn’t allowed to have pens or pencils until 2008, his daughter, Kamila, said. Even once he did, any paper he wrote on would be confiscated, and he would be punished.
Now, he’s writing the second part of his book, which will cover the remainder of his time in prison. He is working with Human Rights Watch and other human rights and press freedom groups to publicize how he was treated and share information about prison conditions.
He’s also catching up on the nearly two decades of modern life he missed.
“Even though my wife told me about the new technology, I didn’t believe her,” he said. His daughters said he was always interested in the latest technology before going to prison, and he’s rekindling that hobby now.
His middle daughter, Kamila, has been helping him figure out how to fly a drone, which he uses to take footage of their surroundings. He has a tablet and laptop, plus a smartphone.
He has also been able to meet his grandchildren, seven-year-old Aron and three-year-old Leah, for the first time. The pair sat next to him on a couch as he talked about his imprisonment. Leah offered Bekjanov a lick from her lollipop, which he declined with a laugh.
“Every time his grandkids are over, he’s always filming them,” Kamila said.
Navigating two large airports on the way to the U.S. was a challenge. Bekjanov speaks no English, and managed by putting his family on video chat and having them read signs and talk to airport workers for them. But he’s eager to learn.
“I’m going to start speaking English in half a year. Just watch me!” he said.
Aygul said after all the time he spent imprisoned, he never lost his sense of humor.
Press freedom is still nonexistent in Uzbekistan. Reporters Without Borders ranked the county 165th out of 195 countries in the world for 2018, noting that while Mirziyoyev has promised to improve human rights, journalists continue to be imprisoned and independent news sites are blocked.
Bekjanov has talked about wanting to return someday, because he doesn’t want the government to think he’s no longer a problem for them. He would like to pursue reconciliation and receive the apartment and belongings confiscated from his family, as well as monetary compensation for the imprisonment and torture.
“I’m still going to come back and ask for what they owe me,” he said. “They stole 18 years of my life.”
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