The Kyrgyz journalist and human rights activist Azimjon Askarov has been in prison for almost a decade. A member of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority, Askarov has spent his journalistic career exposing corruption. He was arrested on various trumped-up charges on 15 June 2010 during the inter-ethnic violence that swept Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces in southern Kyrgyzstan. Before his arrest, Askarov was a contributor to independent news websites, including Voice of Freedom, and director of the human rights group Vozdukh (Air). On 15 September 2010, he was convicted of incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer and sentenced to life imprisonment. Ethnic Uzbeks were disproportionately affected by the 2010 inter-ethnic violence, which left more than four hundred dead and led to the destruction of thousands of homes. The unrest was followed by numerous incidences of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture.
Askarov maintains that he played no part in the clashes, insisting that he had merely been documenting the violence and human rights violations in his home town of Bazar-Korgon during the unrest. He took photographs of victims (both Kyrgyz and Uzbek), made extensive notes and went to the local morgue to identify bodies. He also claims to have witnessed Kyrgyz police officers shooting ethnic Uzbeks. Following changes to Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code in January 2019, Askarov’s case became eligible for review. However, on 30 July, a court in northern Kyrgyzstan upheld his conviction and life sentence. Askarov was reportedly prevented from attending the hearing and his lawyer was briefly denied access to the court. He is in poor health and has been denied treatment for serious medical conditions.
Following the initial trial, an official investigation commissioned by the Kyrgyz government’s human rights ombudsman concluded that Askarov was not at the scene at the time of the police officer’s murder and had played no part in the killing. In June 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists published a special report based on interviews with Askarov, his lawyers and defence witnesses, as well as a review of court documents. Many believe that Askarov was convicted because of his activities exposing corrupt and abusive practices among regional police and prosecutors. Since his arrest, Askarov has repeatedly complained of being beaten and threatened, and his claims are supported by independent witnesses. The international NGO Physicians for Human Rights carried out an examination of Askarov in January 2012 and concluded that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury consistent with his allegations.
In March 2016, United Nations experts investigating his case concluded that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, tortured, mistreated and prevented from adequately preparing his defence, as well as being denied medical treatment. A number of defence witnesses reported that they had been intimidated and threatened during the course of the first trial. In July of the same year, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court ordered Askarov’s retrial, but on 24 January 2017 the original verdict was upheld.
Askarov studied art at university and afterwards worked as a house painter and decorator. He turned to journalism in the mid-1990s and swiftly upset the authorities by uncovering corruption in local government. His investigations into police criminality reportedly led to ten officers losing their jobs. Since then, he has been a thorn in the side of the authorities, exposing fabricated criminal cases, arbitrary detentions and the rape and abusive treatment of detainees in his native Jalal-Abad province.
Since the election of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov in November 2017, little has changed for Askarov and his fellow Uzbeks. In May 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted with concern ‘the persistence of … tensions, notably between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority’ and cautioned that the government’s official inter-ethnic relations policy ‘focused on creating a national identity that is not explicitly inclusive of all ethnicities and may tend to reignite past conflicts’.
International and domestic NGOs risk harassment if they campaign on Askarov’s behalf. Some journalists and human rights defenders believe that the government wants to keep Askarov in prison because he has information that implicates police officers and politicians in the violence of 2010. Others suggest that President Jeenbekov fears that his release might spark further Kyrgyz violence in the south of the country. At the time of writing, appeals are not recommended, though this may change. According to one of his lawyers, Askarov’s health has seriously deteriorated in the past few months and he continues to be denied access to adequate medical care.
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