Situated more than 1,200 kilometres west of Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, in the parched landscape of Karakalpakstan near what had been the Aral Sea, Jaslyk had long-been one of the Central Asian republic’s most notorious prisons where death and torture were common.

On 2 August, however, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered its closure as part of his effort to improve Uzbekistan’s image abroad after more than two decades of autocratic rule by its previous leader, Islam Karimov, who turned the resource-rich Muslim nation of more than 32 million people into an international pariah and effectively turned Central Asia’s most-populated country into a hermit kingdom under his more than 25 years of iron-fisted rule.

Jaslyk Prison became one of the symbols of Karimov’s repressive reign. First opened in 1999 on the site of a former Soviet military base used to test chemical warfare equipment, the Gulag-style facility housed thousands of political and religious prisoners who were subjected to horrific living conditions and where torture, rape, and death at the hands of the sadistic prison guards were the norm.

Since Karimov’s death in 2016, the reform-oriented Mirziyoyev has worked to rehabilitate Uzbekistan’s image in the hope that he can engage the international community to help jumpstart the moribund Uzbek economy. The Jaslyk closure follows Mirziyoyev’s implementation of cautious economic reforms and the sacking of Karimov-era security officials.

The European Union hailed Mirziyoyev’s decision, saying, “The EU is also looking forward to a reform of the prison system based on the ratification and full implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and to empowering the Ombudsman’s office to carry out the function of National Preventive Mechanism according to international best practise.”

Brussels also noted that Mirziyoyev’s decision to close Jaslyk was key to building trust between the Uzbek government in Tashkent and the EU, with the latter stating that Uzbekistan must adhere to the supremacy of the rule of law and human rights as a precondition for accelerated economic and social development between the two parties.

“The trust of both foreign and domestic economic operators in the ongoing reforms and their readiness to invest in Uzbekistan’s economy depend on continuous progress in observing the rule of law and human rights. The EU stands ready to support developments that would further enhance our relationship to a new level,” the European Union said in its statement following Uzbekistan’s decision to shut down Jaslyk Prison.