ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbekistan, ruled by authoritarian president Islam Karimov, has released a prominent journalist and preacher from prison a year early, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
The U.S.-based monitoring group says thousands of people including human rights and opposition activists, journalists, religious believers and even artists have been imprisoned under Karimov on politically motivated charges.
Karimov, who is 77 and seeking re-election next month, says he has to be tough to prevent militant Islamism taking hold in his mainly Muslim nation of 30 million, which borders Afghanistan.
HRW said Hayrullo Hamidov, a 39-year-old journalist, poet and radio host popular for his religious sermons, had been amnestied on Feb. 11 after serving five years of a six-year sentence "on apparent politically motivated charges".
After his arrest in 2010, Hamidov was charged with membership of a banned religious-extremist organization and possession of banned literature, HRW said.
Last September, an HRW report documented the cases of 34 prominent political prisoners as evidence that torture, kidnapping, incommunicado detention and arbitrary extension of sentences were all widespread in Uzbekistan.
HRW's Uzbek office was ordered to shut in 2011. Major Western media outlets, including Reuters, are not permitted to operate in Uzbekistan.
Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Kevin Liffey