Uzbekistan frees dissident writer ahead of US visit

Uzbekistan has unexpectedly released an Uzbek writer who spent 14 years in jail for opposition views, ahead of a visit by an American official, a rights group said Tuesday.

Seventy-two-year-old writer and opposition activist Mamadali Makhmudov was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in August 1999 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Central Asian country's regime.

As his first sentence neared the end, a court in April sentenced Makhmudov to three more years in prison for violating prison rules, according to rights activists who campaigned for his release.

But last Friday he was unexpectedly released, in a move a local rights group said was motivated by this week's visit of a senior US State Department official.

"(Mamadali) Makhmudov was released on April 19. He looks good for someone who spent 14 years of his life in (an) Uzbek jail," said Abdurahmon Tashanov of Ezgulik (Kindness) rights group.

"We have seen earlier that (the) Uzbek government often releases dissidents from jail ahead of visits by senior US officials," Tashanov told AFP

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs Robert Blake is set to travel to the Uzbek capital Tashkent on Wednesday, meeting officials and delivering a speech at a local university.

The United States Embassy said it "welcomes the release of writer Mamadali Makhmudov and encourages the government of Uzbekistan to consider the release of additional prisoners on humanitarian grounds."

Makhmudov had always denied his charges, saying that he was pressured to confess.

Amnesty International has said he complained of being subjected to torture in detention, including having his hands and feet burned and needles shoved under his nails.

Makhmudov's release, made without any official statement, came on the same day as the US State Department published its human rights report on Uzbekistan, calling it an "authoritarian state" where President Islam Karimov exercises "nearly complete control".

The report flagged abuses of detainees as one of the country's most significant human rights issues and called prison conditions "harsh and life threatening".