ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) - A group of international rights groups has urged Uzbekistan to mark the 20th anniversary of the country's constitution with the unconditional release of political prisoners.
The nine groups, which include New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Thursday that the gesture would demonstrate the authoritarian Central Asian nation's commitment to reform.
The statement identified dozens of potential candidates for release, noting that many of them are suffering ill-health and have been subject to mistreatment.
Despite its rights record, the ex-Soviet republic's role in assisting U.S.-led military operations in neighboring Afghanistan has spared it from the diplomatic isolation and severe sanctions reserved for other authoritarian states.
"Freeing political prisoners for Constitution Day is an opportunity for President Islam Karimov to show Uzbekistan's people and international partners that he's willing to take a genuine step toward reform," HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said in the statement.
Former Communist party boss Karimov has maintained an iron grip over his mainly Muslim nation of 29 million people since it gained independence in 1991.
Uzbekistan often celebrates Constitution Day, to be marked Saturday, with mass amnesties aimed at freeing up room in the crowded jails, but beneficiaries typically do not include people imprisoned on political grounds.
United Nations bodies and HRW say torture and prisoner abuse is rife in Uzbekistan's prisons.
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