Uzbekistan releases dissident, arrests another

ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbekistan released a prominent dissident from prison on Tuesday, on the same day an opposition outlet said one of its contributors in the Central Asian nation had been arrested.

The former Soviet republic has puzzled observers with conflicting signals over the last few weeks, with another prominent dissident, who had been struck off a security blacklist, being detained on his return from exile.

Human rights activist Azam Farmonov, 39, was set free on Tuesday, the United States embassy in Tashkent said in a statement welcoming his release.

Farmonov was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2006 on charges of extortion which other activists called fabricated. His term was extended by five more years in 2015.

Farmonov’s early release followed the freeing of several other prominent political prisoners jailed under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov.

“We applaud these positive steps and hope they signal future releases and a more open approach to civil society,” the U.S. embassy said.

Karimov had run the nation of 32 million with an iron fist from 1989 until his death in September 2016, and his tough policies resulted in Uzbekistan’s international near-isolation.

Seeking to improve ties with the West and attract foreign investment, Mirziyoyev has taken steps to liberalize the nation. He has moved to ease travel restrictions and implemented a foreign exchange reform.

He also ordered some 16,000 people struck off a blacklist of potential extremists and dissidents in August. However, when one of them, prominent dissident writer Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon, returned to Tashkent from Turkey last month, he was detained.

Although Raufkhon has been released this week, he still faces anti-government propaganda charges.

On Tuesday, People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, an organization of opposition activists in exile, said in a statement that a contributor for its website had been arrested and charged with seeking to overthrow the constitutional order.

Authorities in Uzbekistan could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Ralph Boulton