A Renewal of Hope: The Case of Muhammad Bekzhanov

By YOUSUF ALI, Opinions Editor

From reading the headlines, one could not be blamed for coming to the conclusion that the world is  coming to an end. Every story seems to be about a new massacre, a famous actor or world leader who has died or another act of xenophobia has prevailed. 2016 has brought more than its fair share of devastating headlines, and in such times, it is all too easy to lose hope.

Nevertheless, there remains some good in the world, and I wish to relay one example.

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to the Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekzhanov, in hopes of encouraging him in dire circumstances. He has been imprisoned on the basis of fraudulent charges since 1999. In this time he has been repeatedly tortured and has had his sentence arbitrarily and unjustly extended several times. This led to Amnesty International adopting him as a prisoner of conscience in their annual Write4Rights campaign. As a result millions of people wrote letters to the Uzbekistani government appealing for his release. Now, he is scheduled for release next month

Bekzhanov’s sentence expires in January 2017, but the need to continue pressure continues. This is because the Uzbekistani government has unjustly extended his sentence in the past and is known for holding prisoners past their scheduled day of release. As such, it is crucial that activists continue appeals to release via Amnesty International’s website. That said, we have reason for cautious optimism this time around.

A few months ago, the dictatorial President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov passed away and with his death, comes an unique opportunity for the former Soviet nation. Karimov was the head of Uzbekistan when it was still a part of the USSR, and when the union dissolved he took power. Since that time, he has doubled down on the oppressive tactics and cronyism that were all too common in the USSR which turned his country into one of the most corrupt in the world. It was for this reason that they worked so hard to prevent good journalists like Muhammad Bekzhanov from being released. They did not want there to be a serious public debate about how their country should be ran. Now, Uzbekistan is under the control of former allies of the late President Karimov which signals continuity; however, new faces can bring new opportunities. The leaders of Uzbekistan know just how dismal their country’s reputation is and there is nothing leaders love more than wanting to be seen as great reformers.

So, if the international community presses Uzbekistan on the benefits of becoming a more just and free country, there may be some change. One way for them to show such willingness for change is to release someone who has been so clearly imprisoned unjustly like Bekzhanov, but in order for this to happen, there must be consistent pressure throughout the international community for such reform.

When examining the case of Muhammad Bekzhanov, it is easy to develop a bleak outlook, but hope remains. For one, Bekzhanov is scheduled for release later this month. Even though he has had his sentence lengthened beforehand, Uzbekistan is under new leadership that presumably wants to make a good impression on the world. With consistent pressure and encouragement from the international community, Bekzhanov could be released as a token showing that change is possible. This would go a long way for both the people and the reputation of the Central Asian country.