by Stefan Kielbasiewicz
Azimjon Askarov, 61, is an ethnically Uzbek-Kyrgyzstani journalist who has worked as a human rights activist since the 1990’s, and in 2002 founded the group Vozduh (Air), a local human rights organisation which operates in the Jalal-Abad province. His work has focused on documenting prison conditions and police treatment of detainees. Up until the time of his arrest in 2010, Askarov was able to initiate new investigations in several cases of police brutality and torture. He quickly made himself unpopular and his investigations into police involvement in criminal activity reportedly led to ten police officers losing their jobs. Nevertheless during this time, Askarov claims, “enemies in the law enforcement community were constantly looking for an opportunity to shut me down”.
In 2010, Kyrgyzstan saw an outbreak of ethnic violence where many people, primarily Uzbeks, were killed, and more displaced. Uzbek community and religious leaders were arrested and accused of inciting violence, among them Askarov, who had been documenting events during the riots. Askarov was arrested on 15 June although not formally charged until June 18 (Kyrgyz authorities are required to issue a charge within 48 hours after arrest). On September 15 he was convicted of “organising mass disturbances” “inciting interethnic hatred” as well as complicity in the murder of a police officer, which followed with a sentence of life imprisonment.
Askarov testified himself that he had been beaten and tortured while in police custody, although on 4 November 2010 the prosecutor’s office held a press conference to deny any beatings had taken place. Appealing to PEN Askarov wrote, “I was denied a lawyer and severely tortured for three days in an attempt to extract a confession that would help the false charges against me.”
The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and other independent observers have declared that Askarov, including seven other individuals, did not receive a fair trial. The defense lawyers were reportedly denied the opportunity to submit petitions or question witnesses. Furthermore, the hearings were allegedly conducted in an openly hateful atmosphere, where relatives of the dead policeman shouted anti-Uzbek slurs and demands for execution against the defendants, and intimidated and attacked their lawyers and family members without an adequate response from the side of court officials or police present.
Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, governments have a responsibility to ensure that lawyers “are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference” and that when “the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions” the authorities should provide adequate safeguards.
On 8 February 2011, the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court agreed to hear new evidence in Askarov’s case; however, his hearing was suspended. On 11 April 2011, his appeal hearing was postponed for the second time.Then in November 2011, Askarov’s lawyers filed an appeal to the U.N. Human Rights Committee to seek Askarov’s immediate release and the reversal of his conviction, along with a full medical examination and treatment given that he had suffered the effects of torture. He had also recently been diagnosed with heart disease and was moved to a prison hospital in Bishkek, where further concerns were raised on whether he was receiving adequate care from the authorities.
On 20 December 2011, however, the Kyrgyzstani Supreme Court decided to uphold Askarov’s sentence. Some journalists and human rights defenders believe that the authorities are reluctant to re-open Askarov’s case simply because he has too much information implicating police officers and politicians in the violence of 2010.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the International Federation for Human Rights, PEN International and other organisations have all denounced the charges against Askarov. On 8 March 2011, People in Need awarded him the Homo Homini Award “in recognition of a dedication to the promotion of human rights, democracy and non-violent solutions to political conflicts.” In an acceptance speech written from prison, Askarov responded, “I cried like a baby. There are no words to express my heartfelt joy. After much suffering, torture and humiliation, I realized once again the high social value of fighting for human rights and justice!” In 2012, Askarov won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The award recognizes journalists who show courage in defending press freedom despite facing attacks, threats, or imprisonment.
Askarov was an honorary ‘Empty Chair’ at PEN’s 2014 international congress in Bishkek, where his wife, Hadicha Askarova, made a moving personal appeal to PEN delegates. During the congress, PEN delegations raised Askarov’s case directly in private meetings with both President Atambayev and the General Prosecutor, Aida Salyanova.