He spent nearly two decades in prison for what are widely seen as trumped-up charges. But recently freed Uzbek journalist Yusuf Ruzimurodov says he holds no grudges against those who put him behind bars.
The journalist says he knew all along that there would a heavy price to pay for working for a newspaper with ties to the opposition in a country that tolerated no dissent.
Ruzimurodov, who worked for the Erk (Freedom) publication, was tried and sentenced along with five other defendants in 1999 on charges that included attempting to overthrow the government.
The newspaper was linked to the banned opposition party of the same name, Erk.
Ruzimurodov, then a 35-year-old reporter whose hobby was reading history books, found himself sharing an overcrowded prison cell with convicted killers and thieves.
"I lived with hope. I knew that I was innocent and I would be free one day," Ruzimurodov told RFE/RL in a phone interview from the southeastern Qashqadaryo Province, where he is staying at his brother’s house.
"It was hope that kept me going."
Ruzimurodov, 54, who was released in February, is reluctant to talk about his years doing hard time.
Brick By Brick
"I spent all my free time reading books. There was a library in prison. And I also had my own books brought by visiting relatives," Ruzimurodov says. "I would read a lot during the night."
During the day, however, Ruzimurodov worked in a factory, loading bricks onto freight cars.
"I loaded at least 8.5 million bricks during the 10 years I spent at the labor colony in Navoyi Province," Ruzimurodov recalls.
"Each prisoner had a daily quota of loading one-and-half train cars with bricks," the journalist says.
"I would fulfill my quota every single day, because I hoped I would be released early for good behavior and working hard. Several fellow inmates were freed early on those grounds."
Early release wasn't in the cards, however. To the contrary, Ruzimurodov, who was initially sentenced to 15 years, ended up serving 19 years instead, becoming one of Uzbekistan’s longest-held prisoners of conscience.
As was not uncommon under late President Islam Karimov, Ruzimurodov saw his imprisonment extended twice on charges he says were fabricated.
"In 2014, I was counting down the days to my release," the journalist says. "When just 25 days were left till the end of my sentence, I was accused of verbally abusing a fellow inmate and my term was prolonged for another three years."
Charges of "violation of internal prison rules" were routinely used against imprisoned activists and journalists under Karimov’s authoritarian rule.
The extended sentence came as Ruzimurodov was suffering from tuberculosis he contracted in prison.
"I tried to find mental strength, and it made the physical hardship easier to deal with," Ruzimurodov says. "I would tell myself that I’m an educated person, I must face my situation with patience and dignity."
In the end he persevered despite the hardships, including mistreatment and the loss of both his parents during his incarceration.
Uzbek prisons under Karimov were notorious for torturing inmates, especially those imprisoned for criticizing the government.
Human rights groups have documented that Ruzimurodov and his fellow defendants -- all linked to the opposition -- were tortured upon their arrest in 1999.
Citing a defense lawyer, Human Rights Watch reported at the time that the defendants "testified that they had been cruelly and repeatedly tortured."
"A statement signed by all six claimed that torture methods included electric shocks, beatings with batons and plastic bottles filled with water, and the use of the 'bag of death,' a plastic bag used to temporarily suffocate victims," the rights watchdog said.
Ruzimurodov doesn't want to talk about any mistreatment he might have suffered.
A self-described "optimist by nature," Ruzimurodov says he wants to look to the future instead of dwelling in the past.
His second extended sentence came in 2017, when he was again nearing release. This time he was accused of violating prison rules by "washing his hair outside the designated bathing time."
Ruzimurodov was given another three years, but the extension came at a fortuitous time, because there was a new sheriff in town.
President Shavkat Mirziyoev was now in power, replacing Karimov, whose died in the fall of 2016 after 27 years in power.
Mirziyoev went on to release numerous political activists, journalists, and opposition figures and removed thousands of people from the security services' blacklist.
Ruzimurodov sent a letter from prison to the president, asking for his freedom.He was released on February 22.
Ruzimurodov’s release was welcomed by human rights advocates, the OSCE, and the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, among others.
Ruzimurodov says he doesn’t have a clear career plan yet, but says he wants "to take part in the ongoing reforms and changes in Uzbekistan."
"For the time being I just enjoy being free," Ruzimurodov says. "As for the past, I have no regrets."
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on interviews conducted by RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Khurmat Babajanov.