TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan's decision in early August to close its infamous Jaslyk prison, once known for repeated torture, has been welcomed by the international community and human rights organisations.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a resolution August 2 ordering its closure, but transfer of the prisoners elsewhere and other necessities will require an unspecified period to complete.
The move comes as Uzbekistan, under Mirziyoyev, tries to fight extremism without the rights violations that characterised the rule of his long-time predecessor, the late Islam Karimov.
Uzbek officials established Jaslyk in 1999 in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan after deadly bombings in Tashkent that year, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Authorities blamed the bombings on extremists and launched a crackdown that saw tens of thousands of arrests.
Numerous accusations of torture and human rights violations have swirled around the prison since then. A report by Human Rights Watch in 2000, for example, noted poor detention conditions, cruelty and torture of prisoners at Jaslyk and other prisons.
Shutting it down was "an important event in the country's political life", said Interior Minister Pulat Bobojonov on Uzbek TV August 5.
One of the goals of closing the prison was to "promote a positive image of the country in the international arena", said the Interior Ministry (MVD) in a statement on the prison closure.
"The results of direct dialogue with the public indicate the need to further humanise convicts' detention conditions," the MVD added.
Only 10% of the 395 prisoners who remained in the prison by July were convicted of extremism, said Bobojonov. The prison was meant for 1,100 inmates, he said.
"At different times, various journalists and human rights activists reported that several thousand people convicted of terrorism and ... extremism were being held in the prison," Tashkent political scientist Valerii Khan said in an interview. "They cited numbers from 1,000 to 10,000."
The Uzbek government has never disseminated any information about the prison, according to Khan.
"The numbers were unknown; no one was allowed inside the prison. Against this background, many rumours appeared," he said.
Convicts held in Jaslyk will be sent to other prisons to serve out their sentences, according to the MVD.
Ending a symbol of oppression
To protect its own reputation, Uzbekistan "must never create an institution like Jaslyk again", said Akmal Saidov, director of Uzbekistan's National Centre for Human Rights, in an interview with Kun.uz August 6.
"We must learn from the negative experience with Jaslyk," he said.
The United States welcomed the decision to close Jaslyk.
"There is still much work to be done to improve human rights in Uzbekistan, but the end of this symbol of oppression is an important step on the path of reform," the US embassy posted on its Facebook page on August 15.
In May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report had recommended that the Uzbek government "close the notorious Jasliq Prison, where many religious prisoners of conscience are held, and allow for independent prison monitoring".
The United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) both lauded the prison's closure.
"This decision is in line with the long-standing recommendations of the UN Human Rights Mechanisms," said Helena Fraser, UN resident co-ordinator in Uzbekistan, in a statement on August 7.
UN representatives have recommended the closure of Jaslyk since 2002, she noted.
"The trust of both foreign and domestic economic operators in the ongoing reforms and their readiness to invest in Uzbekistan's economy depend on continuous progress in this area [rule of law and observance of human rights]," the EU said in a statement on the closure of Jaslyk.
The closure of the prison comes as Uzbekistan's rehabilitates extremists and helps them to integrate into normal society.
In May, Uzbekistan evacuated 156 Uzbek citizens who ended up in "Islamic State" (IS)'s zone of influence in the Middle East. Uzbekistan is creating conditions for them to return to a peaceful life, such as work, housing and access to educational programmes.
"Since 2017, the president has pardoned about 4,000 convicts. Those released are not ignored by the state or society," Bobojonov said on TV August 5.
The pardoned inmates receive help with job placement, health care and finances, he said.
In 2017, the Uzbek government removed 18,000 citizens from its blacklists targeting extremists.