Tohar Haydarov.Tohar Haydarov.International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists

Uzbek authorities have released a Christian convert six years into his 10-year jail sentence.

Tohar Haydarov, 33, was released on parole on 8 November after serving six years and 10 months of his prison term. A judge had ruled he was eligible for parole the previous day. Haydarov has returned to his home in Gulistan, eastern Uzbekistan.

“God heard the prayers of many Christians,” his fellow Baptists told the Oslo-based Forum 18 News Service. “We are thankful to everybody who prayed for him and sent letters to him while in prison.”

The former Soviet republic is officially secular, but human rights organisations say the state severely restricts religious freedom and freedom of expression, especially of members of religious organisations not affiliated to state-controlled Islamic or Russian Orthodox institutions.

Haydarov was found guilty in March 2010 of drugs charges, which local Baptists insist were fabricated. According to the charity Release International, his arrest followed a request by some of his relatives that local police help them to force Haydarov to return to Islam.

The day after his trial on 4 March 2010, Haydarov’s father was found dead and, according to the official findings, died as a result of accidental electrocution, the EA Foundation reported.

A spokesman for the Council of Baptist Churches told Forum 18 that Haydarov’s release did not signal a change in government policy towards Protestants. He said the “attitude to Christians in Uzbekistan is as before. Therefore it is possible that Tohar will encounter problems. We continue praying for Tohar.”

Gleb Serin, a Baptist who is close to Haydarov, suggested that he had been released on account of his good behaviour, and because he had already served more than half his term.

Serin’s brother, Andrey, said Haydarov was warned as he was released that “he should not get into trouble and return to prison”.

A spokesperson for the religious freedom charity Open Doors said that Haydarov’s release was surprising because he had been denied amnesty while many other prisoners were granted it in May.

“We are very grateful Tohar has been granted parole: we have prayed for him for years and we need to continue our prayers. After six years in such difficult circumstances, he needs to be restored and re-establish his relationship with his loved ones. We know from other ex-prisoners that the process can be hard,” the spokesperson said.

Uzbekistan is ranked fifteenth on the Open Doors 2016 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to be a Christian. It has one of the harshest dictatorships in Central Asia and all forms of opposition and deviations from the norm are suppressed. Christianity is regarded as a foreign and destabilising factor, and Christian converts from a Muslim background experience additional pressure from their social and cultural environment.