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FILE PHOTO: A girl is silhouetted against the sun standing next to Uzbek flags in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, November 5, 2005. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
YANGIBAZAR, Uzbekistan (Reuters) - A newspaper editor jailed for 18 years in Uzbekistan says he was subjected to such harsh torture that he forgot the names of his daughters, but was kept alive by the support of human rights groups.
Muhammad Bekjanov, 63, was released in February, months after the death of president Islam Karimov who had run the Central Asian nation for 27 years.
Editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, Bekjanov was sentenced to 15 years in 1999 for publishing and distributing a banned paper, participating in a banned political protest and plotting a coup, charges he denied.
Bekjanov's brother, Muhammad Salih, the leader of the Erk party, was a presidential candidate in 1991 and has lived in exile since 1993. In 1999 he was convicted in absentia on terrorism charges, which he denied.
Muhammad Bekjanov's jail term was first reduced so that he could be freed in 2012, but then extended by another five years.
Karimov died from a stroke in September and was succeeded by his former prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has overseen the release of several political prisoners.
"If the old leadership had stayed in place, I would certainly have had a new five-year extra term handed down to me," Bekjanov told Reuters in an interview.
Shortly after Karimov's death, he said: "Everyone started treating me differently. Even regular inmates (not political prisoners) approached and talked to me. Then I felt that there were some new directives from above."
Bekjanov said he was tortured, physically and psychologically, in the first few years of his term, until the Red Cross resumed visits to Uzbek prisons in 2003. Uzbekistan has denied using torture against Bakjanov or any other prisoners.
"Once I was put in solitary confinement for more than six months," he said. "I even forgot the names of my daughters then."
"The most difficult time was when I had been extradited from Ukraine and put in the Jaslyk prison where my legs were broken, my ears became deaf."
Bekjanov said international support kept him going.
"Lots of journalists from around the world and human rights organizations kept contacting me while I was in jail," he said.
"After the first three years in prison I started receiving letters and postcards from them. My relatives told me what was going on around me out there when they visited me. These all gave me spiritual strength."
Asked if he saw his release as a sign of a political thaw, Bakjanov said:
"There are other dissidents, journalists, rights defenders and opposition members still in prisons; we could talk about political changes if they are all set free."
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, at least nine journalists are currently jailed in Uzbekistan, a mostly Muslim former Soviet republic of 32 million, alongside opposition politicians, human rights defenders and civil society activists, as well as thousands of people accused of religious extremism.
(This version of the story corrects the spelling of Yangizbazar in dateline)
(Reporting by the Almaty bureau; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)