Activist freed in Uzbekistan after 12 years in prison

Mirziyoyev has moved to distance himself from Karimov's hardline policies

Uzbekistan has released an activist who was jailed for nearly 12 years after a bloody crackdown on protesters in the east of the country, rights groups said on Saturday.

Isroil Kholdarov, a human rights and political activist from Andijan, scene of a brutal crackdown on protesters, was freed from a jail in the capital Tashkent earlier this week, a member of the rights group Ezgulik said.

"He is well," Ezgulik's Abdurakhmon Tashanov told AFP.

"He wants to rest a while and undergo some health checks," he said, adding that Kholdarov planned to return to the eastern city of Andijan.

Kholdarov was a member of the Erk political party banned for its opposition to late Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and documented rights abuses in Andijan.

In 2005, the Uzbek government violently suppressed a popular uprising in Andijan, leaving hundreds dead, according to some estimates.

The bloody crackdown marked a watershed moment in the Central Asian country's descent into authoritarianism under Karimov.

Kholdarov initially escaped the country but was then brought back from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in 2006 in circumstances his supporters likened to a kidnapping.

His six-year sentence was extended twice while he was in jail.

Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, called Kholdarov's release "a real moment of joy" but he also urged the Uzbek government to do more to break with the past.

"The government should move swiftly to end the practice of politically-motivated prosecutions and release all others held for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression," Swerdlow said in a statement.

"If the government is serious about changing the paradigm and moving beyond the dark Karimov legacy, jailing perceived critics has to become a thing of the past."

Kholdarov is the second prominent political prisoner released by Uzbekistan this month after journalist Dilmurod Said was freed after nearly a decade behind bars.

Uzbekistan's leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was elected president in 2016 after serving as prime minister for 13 years, has moved to distance himself from Karimov's hardline policies.

Nevertheless, analysts do not expect Mirziyoyev to push through genuine political reforms that would lead to the emergence of a free press and political opposition.

Karimov, whose hardline rule spanned 27 years, died after a reported stroke aged 78 in September 2016.