In a rare public appeal, 12 leading US senators have urged Uzbekistan’s strongman to release a human rights activist and two journalists who are serving "politically motivated" prison sentences.
A bipartisan letter to President Islam Karimov, initiated by senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), and signed by prominent Republican senators John McCain and Marco Rubio among others, requested information about the "health and status" of human rights lawyer Agzam Turgunov and journalists Dilmurod Saidov and Salijon Abdurakhmanov, whose "continued detention is inconsistent with our countries' cooperation in many other areas and symbolic of a troubling pattern of harsh treatment for political prisoners" in Uzbekistan, the June 26 letter said.
Washington is generally cautious about criticizing Uzbekistan's rights record, activists say, as the country is critical to NATO's plans for evacuating Afghanistan by the end of next year. In recent years, Washington has softened its rights rhetoric and lifted some sanctions relating to Uzbekistan's poor human rights record.
All three prisoners, the senators believe, are being held on trumped-up charges: Turgunov, 61, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for extortion in 2008; Saidov, 51, received over 12 years for extortion and forgery in 2009, and Abdurakhmanov, 63, was imprisoned in 2008 for selling drugs.
"[T]hese three prisoners suffer from poor health and lack of adequate medication attention, a situation that we worry may have worsened with the International Committee of the Red Cross's recent termination of visits to detainees in Uzbekistan due to extremely challenging conditions imposed by your government," the senators' letter said. "Their release would further our important bilateral relationship."
Last week, the State Department slammed Tashkent for failing to address human trafficking and child labor. Some believe that move could presage further sanctions.