TASHKENT - Ismail Adilov, a 51-year-old carpenter from the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, endured two years in jail in inhuman conditions because he stood up to his country's authoritarian regime.
The squalor, deprivation, routine beatings and humiliations he was subjected to bear chilling parallels with the Gulag camps where the Soviet Union locked away its dissidents.
His story, and those of over 7,000 other political prisoners rights groups say are in Uzbek jails, is why many are uneasy about the "qualitatively new relations" between Uzbekistan and the United States -- which is using Uzbek air force bases for operations against neighboring Afghanistan.
Adilov was sentenced to six years in jail in September 1999 for membership of Khizbut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic group, on the strength of the organization's leaflets which he says police planted in his pockets.
International human rights groups and the US State Department have acknowledged that police fabricated the charges against him because they did not appreciate his activities as a human rights defender.
After his trial, Adilov was sent to a penal colony in Kiziltep, southern Uzbekistan. It housed 5,000 prisoners in barracks designed for 1,000.
"When I first arrived there was no space so I slept on the floor for three months," he told AFP in an interview at his home in Tashkent. "They gave me a mattress but it was cold because there was no heating."
In Kiziltep, the prison guards singled out the political prisoners, who numbered about 400 and were mostly members of Khizbut-Tahrir, for particularly harsh treatment, said Adilov.
Roll-call was at 6:00 am, after which most of the prisoners were herded into the canteen for breakfast. But the political prisoners were kept out on the drill ground.
"They made us sing the Uzbek national anthem between five and ten times," Adilov said. "If you did not sing the hymn loudly enough, they would beat you with truncheons."
"Then, in groups, we had to compose a song to the glory of (Uzbek President Islam) Karimov. If you sang the same song as another group they would make you do drill practice....Even if you were ill they would make you do it."
By the time this had finished they were allowed to have breakfast, though often by that time there was no food left.
They were not missing much. The staple diet was a thin soup made of foul-smelling potatoes and cabbage, as well as one loaf of bread a day to be shared between three inmates.
Medical attention was minimal. Adilov had chronic liver infection but the only treatment he got was tablets his relatives brought from home.
He had frequent spells in the isolation cell. "They took my razor away because they said I was not allowed to have it in there," he said. "Then they gave me five days in isolation for growing a beard."
Delegations from the Red Crescent society and government officials occasionally visited the jail.
"They hid us all (the political prisoners) in the isolation cell," said Adilov. "We had to sit all day with our hands over our heads. They gave us no food and did not let us go to the toilet."
Beatings were frequent. "The head of the watch would call you into his office and ask what you were in for," he said. "Before you could answer they would start beating you on the head and kicking you in the stomach."
"If they saw anyone praying then he would be surrounded by seven or eight guards and they would kick him and beat him until he could not get up. One had to be put in hospital and when he got out he couldn't walk."
Adilov was released from jail in June this year when Karimov granted him a pardon. Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright was among those who petitioned for his release.
Uzbekistan's government continues to deny that any political prisoners are being held in its jails.
"I lost a lot," Adilov says now of his time in prison. But he added: "I thank my fate that I was there because I was able to see for myself how our rulers treat their own people."
Copyright © 2001 AFP