By Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov
TASHKENT (Reuters) - Uzbek authorities are removing large numbers of people from its blacklist of potential militants and political dissidents, state officials and media said, in a move likely to raise hopes for a more liberal climate in the ultra-secretive ex-Soviet republic.
Western countries and rights activists have long criticized Uzbekistan's record on democracy and human rights and have accused it of using the blacklist indiscriminately to stifle political and religious dissent in the mainly Muslim nation.
Uzbekistan says it faces serious security threats, including from militant Islamists, but President Shavkat Mirziyoyev also needs to attract more foreign investment to help modernize the creaking economy and create sorely needed jobs.
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He has recently made some tentative steps towards liberalizing rules on foreign exchange and exit visas and has spoken of the need to rehabilitate those who have been "misled" by radical groups.
The government has never said how many people are on its blacklist and has not publicly announced any reduction in the numbers, but state media have been running reports on the process, which in some cases has included public ceremonies.
Media said the process was the personal initiative of Mirziyoyev, who took control of Central Asia's most populous nation last September after the death of veteran strongman ruler Islam Karimov. Mirziyoyev was elected president last December.
Two state bodies - the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA) and the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan - both confirmed the process, though neither said how many people were involved nationwide.
The decisions are made on a case-by-case basis by special commissions that include officials and Muslim clerics, a member of one such commission told Reuters.
"There were around 650 people on the list in our district and 570 of them were pardoned and excluded from the list," said the commission member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Many of them once were indeed members of banned extremist groups, jailed and later freed after serving prison terms or amnestied," the commission member added.
One young man removed from the list had traveled to Turkey to study Islam, the official said. A charity there gave him shelter and food, but he later found out it was a recruiting center for Islamic State and returned home.
The figures cited by the official indicate that nationwide the numbers removed from the blacklist could reach into the thousands. They could also suggest a reining in of the powers of the SNB state security service, whose head Rustam Inoyatov was close to the late Karimov.
Under Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan with an iron hand for 27 years till his death, anybody ending up on the blacklist would likely face social ostracism even without any criminal charges. Blacklisted people usually have to report their whereabouts to authorities and seek permission to leave their town or village.
This month several Uzbek dissidents announced via social media networks that they had been removed from the blacklist.
Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon, an Uzbek writer living in Turkey and blacklisted last year after he published a book critical of Karimov's policies, said his wife, who remained in Uzbekistan, told him on August 8 he had been dropped from the list along with 59 other people.
After his book was published, Raufkhon said, security services had raided his home in Tashkent but he was already in Turkey at the time.
"They searched the house, took my manuscripts and books without issuing any documents," he said, adding that he now planned to return home.
Raufkhon also urged Mirziyoyev's government to take a step further and release "thousands of wrongly imprisoned inmates" from jail, saying "justice would then be fully restored".
(Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Gareth Jones)