WASHINGTON Uzbekistan has released five high-profile prisoners jailed for political or religious reasons, including an accused member of an Islamist group who studied in the United States, the U.S. State Department said in its annual human rights report.
The five - also including two human rights activists and two members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, were freed last year, the State Department said in its 2012 survey of human rights around the world.
Abdulaziz Dadahanov, who is in his mid 30s and studied at a Connecticut college from 2001-2003, was among the many Uzbeks jailed in recent years for alleged religious extremism under strongman Islam Karimov. He was serving an eight-year sentence.
The Central Asian nation, citing what it describes as internal threats from Islamic militancy, has suppressed all but state-approved religious practices, U.S. officials and rights groups say.
Approved mosques can operate, but the government arrests Muslims it says are associated with extreme political programs.
In February 2009, Dadahanov and several others were sentenced for membership in the Nur group, a banned religious organization associated with Turkish Islamist scholars. U.S. officials have described it as conservative but not extremist.
Reports of their trial said the defendants testified that they were tortured and that the evidence against them was fabricated.
Steve Swerdlow of the Human Rights Watch group said on Tuesday that Dadahanov was a civic-minded man who fell prey to an Uzbek government campaign against religious practice outside state controls.
"Hundreds of people are convicted on dubious charges of ‘religious extremism' like Dadahanov each year and sent to a prison system known for the systematic and widespread use of torture," said Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher.
Judith Skartvedt, whose family Dadahanov lived with while studying in America, recalls him as an observant young Muslim who helped deliver food to Connecticut soup kitchens, and who was horrified by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The other four high-profile prisoners released in 2012 were Alisher Karamatov; Habibulla Okpulatov; Olim Turayev; and Sergey Ivanov, the State Department said. It said serious human rights abuses continue in Uzbekistan, citing instances of torture and abuse of detainees, and harsh prison conditions.
Uzbek officials in Tashkent could not be reached for comment and Uzbekistan's embassy in Washington did not return a phone call.
Karimov, a former Communist Party boss during Soviet rule, has ruled Uzbekistan since it became independent in 1991.
After years of tension over human rights, ties between Uzbekistan and the United States have improved, with Tashkent helping to establish transit routes for cargo to and from U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Last year the Obama administration resumed some military aid to Tashkent.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Paul Simao)