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Happier days in the Karimov family album

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In old photos from the family album, Islam Karimov - the president of Uzbekistan and the country's leader since Soviet times - sports expressions his countrymen will never have seen on his face before, writes Natalia Antelava.

The man regarded by many as a brutal tyrant stands awkwardly in his black slippers, looking sheepish in the embrace of his favourite daughter, Gulnara.

In another photo he appears lost in thought, his arm pulled protectively around his grandson, Gulnara's son, who was given his name, Islam. But for the Karimovs the happy family days are over.

In an exclusive BBC interview, Islam Karimov Jr - now 23 and studying business at Oxford Brookes University - says his mother and sister are under house arrest in Uzbekistan, and have been refused medical treatment and food. He says he doesn't even know whether "they are alive". He pleads with his grandfather to free them and become "the grandfather I once knew".

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I received a handwritten letter from Gulnara in March in which she claimed she was under house arrest, but this cannot be confirmed independently. "Some people think it's all staged, but that's crazy," says Karimov Jr. "Would you stage your own death or downfall?"

A hugely controversial figure, the glamorous first daughter was involved in corruption scandals in Europe and at home before her fall from grace last year. In cables released by Wikileaks US diplomats called her a "robber baron" and the "most hated person in Uzbekistan". One man told me he was jailed and tortured so that she could seize his business.

Her son dismisses these allegations as part of a smear campaign, preferring to cast her as the country's chief philanthropist. He blames the security services, and his own grandmother, for persecuting his mother. His grandfather is "losing grip on power", he says.

His affection for Islam Karimov Senior, with whom he lived as a child, is obvious.

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"He taught me how to fish, how to ride my bike," he says. "He was always around, always interested and asking us questions."

The president loves German shepherds, he says. "He has always had one, for as long as I remember. He has had at least seven, he has one now too. His name is Barik. The one before was Barik too, and the one before," he says.

When Islam was about eight or nine a Barik unexpectedly died and the presidential security team secretly launched a nationwide search to replace him. They finally found one. It was the "same age, same coat, same everything - my grandfather never found out," Islam says. "Actually I don't want him to find out, I think he'd be upset."

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image captionIslam Karimov Jr, his sister Iman, and Islam Karimov Sr... with Barik

I point out the irony of worrying about upsetting a man who is now his enemy. "I don't want to believe he is my enemy," he says.

He says he has been reading up on Uzbekistan's human rights record, including torture and the crushing of all political dissent. He says he is now "fighting the regime" but shies away from denouncing his grandfather.

"Maybe one day I will have a chance to ask him why the situation is the way it is or what are his reasons, but I can't speak for him," Karimov Jr says. "But things have to change because at one point it will all reach boiling point and everything will fall apart."

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