A pioneering Uzbek banker, Rustam Usmonov, 69, has been released from prison after serving a 19-year sentence, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported on February 15.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan-born Usmonov created Uzbekistan's first-ever private bank, Rustambank. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1998 after accusations of illegal currency exchange operations and extortion but his relatives and human rights groups have always insisted he was a political prisoner jailed for not cooperating with corrupt officials.
Usmonov’s prison term was prolonged by five years in 2012 for "bad behaviour while in custody".
Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirziyoyev’s decision to release him was based on appeals from both Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Mirziyoyev has already excused a number of Uzbek citizens imprisoned during late predecessor Islam Karimov’s rule, which ended in September 2016.
Mirziyoyev’s actions so far have been aimed at gradually liberalising the country in line with the promises he made prior to election to office last December.
Usmonov spent the last five years of his sentence in the infamous Jaslik prison in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakistan.
According to Eurasianet.org, following his release, a family member told Ozodlik, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service: “We met him at Zhaslyk prison and brought him to Tashkent. His state of health is poor and he is now receiving treatment. But he is in good spirit and he thanks [President Shavkat] Mirziyoyev.”
Usmonov is certainly most well known for having created Rustambank but prior to that he became a dollar millionaire after setting up a cooperative company that produced honey and an enterprise that bred and sold earthworms. When he opened his bank in 1992 it had registered capital of $1.2mn.
In its report on his release, Eurasianet tells how Usmonov distinguished himself for his lack of deference to authority, something which he is said to have detailed in his 1995 book “Interrupted Flight.”
Opposition news website eltuz.com in December 2015 published extracts from the book that outlined his philosophy. One reads: “I have come to understand that in our time it counts for nothing to know how to work and make money. You also have to learn how to divide the spoils with officials. But I did not know how to and did not want to do this. I naively imagined that since I give up the lion’s share of what I earned to the government through taxes, it meant that the government should defend me from any other levies.”