ALMATY (Reuters) - The first prominent dissident to return to Uzbekistan since the death of its long-time leader was detained on arrival on Wednesday, his wife said, raising questions about the new president’s efforts to change the country’s image.
Uzbek police took writer Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon away in handcuffs after he landed at Tashkent airport, and sent him to jail after questioning, Gulnara Otakhonova told Reuters in tears.
Officers told her to bring him clothes and a lawyer but did not say what he was charged with, she added.
The interior ministry in mainly Muslim ex-Soviet state bordering Afghanistan did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Raufkhon had been in self-imposed exile in Turkey since 2016, when he was placed on a security blacklist after publishing a book that criticised former leader Islam Karimov.
Karimov, held responsible by Western governments for systematic human rights violations during his 25 years in power, died last September.
His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has sought to present himself as a more liberal leader, and this month Raufkhon told Reuters in an interview that, despite harbouring some misgivings, he would soon return home.
In an open letter to Mirziyoyev last week, Raufkhon said his safe return would “suit the country which is repackaging itself in front of the world community as free and fair since you came to power”.
Improving Tashkent’s image could help Mirziyoyev forge closer ties with the West and attract foreign investment to modernise the economy which has struggled to create enough jobs, forcing millions of Uzbeks to look for work abroad.
Raufkhon’s wife , said by telephone that she and their son had waited for several hours at the airport before seeing Raufkhon escorted outside in handcuffs, then taken to a police station.
As she waited outside the police station later in the day, a police officer told her to hire a lawyer.
In the evening, police told her they were taking Raufkhon to jail and instructed her to bring clothes for him, still without stating any charges, Otakhonova said.
Steve Swerdlow, Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, called Raufkhon’s detention “troubling, particularly given reports authorities had informed him about his rehabilitation and the various steps President Mirziyoyev has taken to show this is a new political era in Uzbekistan”.
Mirziyoyev last month ordered the removal of 16,000 people, including Raufkhon, from the blacklist.
But some of his reforms announced since the December election have suffered from setbacks or delays caused, according to Uzbekistan-based foreign diplomats, by interventions of Karimov-era security boss Rustam Inoyatov with whom Mirziyoyev effectively shares power.
Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens