A Christian convert in the central Asian nation of Uzbekistan who was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison on trumped-up drug charges has been released after serving nearly six years in a labor camp.
The Oslo-based Forum 18 News Service reports that 34-year-old Baptist prisoner of conscience Tohar Haydarov was released from prison on Nov. 8 and is now on parole after having served nearly six years of his decade-long prison sentence.
According to the charity Release International, Haydarov was originally arrested in January 2010, when police tried to pressure him to renounce his faith in Christ and return to Islam.
When Haydarov refused to deny Christ, police charged him with possession of illegal drugs. Fellow Christians condemned the charges against Haydarov, saying that the charges are completely false and made up.
When Haydarov appeared for his court hearing in March 2010, witnesses said he had trouble walking and showed signs that he had been beaten and tortured. A court found Haydarov guilty and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. He was sent to a labor camp near Qarshi.
Although Haydarov appealed his conviction, the nation's Supreme Court ruled against his appeal in August 2011.
"The circumstances surrounding Haydarov's arrest and subsequent 10-year sentence are suspect at best and a typical form of Christian persecution for the region," said Corey Bailey, former International Christian Concern regional manager for central Asia, in a statement.
Haydarov's release came two weeks after his 34th birthday and just one day after a judge ruled that he was eligible for parole and ordered him to be released.
"God heard the prayers of many Christians," fellow Baptists told Forum 18. "We are thankful to everybody who prayed for him and sent letters to him while in prison."
Fellow Baptists Gleb and Andrey Serin, who are close to Haydarov, told the news outlet that Haydarov was released early because of "good behavior."
"Tohar was amnestied for his good behaviour and because he had already served more than half of his prison term," Gleb explained.
Andrey Serin said that Haydarov's release came as a complete surprise.
"Tohar was released quietly, which came as a surprise to him and us," Andrey was quoted as saying. "And, no one was there to meet him outside the prison when he was released."
It is not yet known what the conditions of Haydarov's release and parole will be.
"But he was told verbally when he was released that he should not get into trouble and return to prison," Andrey Serin added. "We will wait and see after he gets his passport."
Even though Uzbekistan is considered to be a secular nation, the authoritarian government of the country's recently deceased dictator, Islam Karimov, has severely restricted religious liberties for worshipers and organizations not affiliated with state-run Russian Orthodox or Islamic congregations.
Open Doors USA has ranked Uzbekistan, which has a Christian population of over 200,000, as the 15th worst country in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians on its annual World Watch List.
"Christianity is regarded as an alien and destabilizing factor," an Open Doors fact sheet on Uzbekistan reads. "On top of this, Christian converts from a Muslim background (Muslim Background Believers, MBBs) experience additional pressure from their social and cultural environment."