Prominent Kyrgyz Rights Defender Dies in Prison

Activists in Kyrgyzstan have pledged to campaign for a posthumous review into the life sentence handed to a prominent human rights defender who has died in prison of coronavirus.

Journalist Azimzhan Askarov, who pleaded not guilty to charges relating to the 2010 outbreak of ethnic conflict in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, died on July 25 in penal colony No 47. The State Service for the Execution of Sentences (GSIN) said that the 69-year-old had suffered from right-side pneumonia and had refused hospitalisation but was nonetheless taken to the prison hospital on July 24.

According to Askarov’s wishes, he was buried in neighbouring Uzbekistan, where most of his family lives.

International organisations including the UN, EU and Open Society Foundation expressed their sadness at his death and called for a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding it. The UN and EU statements both noted that in recent weeks they had repeatedly called on the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to release the human rights defender as his state of health deteriorated.

His lawyer Valerian Vakhitov and Tolekan Ismailova, the head of human rights organisation Bir Duino – Kyrgyzstan, both alleged that the GSIN had failed to provide Askarov with the medical assistance he needed despite his critical condition. According to Vakhitov, Askarov had been unable to walk independently for a month.

Askarov was detained on June 15, 2010 on suspicion of the organisation of mass disorders, incitement of ethnic discord and complicity in the murder of a police officer during the clashes that left nearly 500 people dead and 2,000 injured. Six others were put on trial alongside him; all but two received life sentences.

Although human rights defenders championed Askarov’s case, he was popularly viewed as an Uzbek separatist and never seen as a sympathetic figure within Kyrgyzstan.

Ibraimov said that he had already noticed many negative comments about Askarov on social media since his death, spurred he believed by nationalistic sentiment.

“An interethnic conflict causes emotions rather than rational thinking,” he said.

Nonetheless, Askarov’s trial received wide publicity, and international bodies repeatedly called for his case to be reviewed. While in prison, he received several awards including the International Press Freedom Award and, in 2015, of the US Department of State’s Human Rights Defender award, which infuriated Bishkek.

See (Kyrgyzstan Bares Teeth at Washington).

In 2016, Askarov appealed to the UN Human Rights Commission, which called for a review of his case after finding that his detention had been arbitrary and he was being held in inhumane conditions.

That same year, the Chui regional reviewed Askarov’s case but ruled the previous decision remained in force. In December 2019, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan heard an appeal against that decision and mitigated his punishment on a number of charges. However, the main charge, complicity in the murder of a police officer – which carried a life sentence - remained.

Commenting on the case in an interview with Euronews TV in February 2017, President Almazbek Atambaev said that Askarov’s imprisonment had only been deemed politically motivated because Bishkek had requested the US evacuate its military base near the capital. He went on to ask that the international community respect the justice system of Kyrgyzstan.

Ismailova said that activists, relatives and colleagues would continue to campaign for a review in his case.

She said that his supporters would “continue fighting the impunity, including assumption of the Kyrgyz government of out-of-court execution, political murder of the human rights defender in prison”.

Political analyst Medet Tyulegenov also said that Askarov’s case was unlikely to be quickly forgotten even after his death. Although the question of a release was no longer relevant, the campaign for a review would continue.

“Now it will be a rather symbolical question. The case will remain in another context,” Tyulegenov said.

Temirlan Ibraimov, another political analyst, said that an enquiry should be held into whether Askarov was provided with proper medical help.

“Without blaming anyone, we should investigate it without bias,” he said, adding that an actual review into the case might only be possible if new evidence came to light.

“If the political situation is prone to review, it can take place,” he continued. “I don’t think it will happen in the near future.”