Investigate Torture Allegations; Free Rights Defender Pending Independent Review of Charges
(New York) - Kyrgyz authorities should ensure that a detained human rights activist is allowed to exercise his full due process rights and should take immediate measures for his safety, Human Rights Watch said today. A lawyer who visited 60-year-old Azimzhan Askarov on June 22, 2010, said he bore marks of ill-treatment.
"We are profoundly concerned about Askarov's safety and well-being," said Anna Neistat, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities are blatantly violating his rights."
Police in the southern town of Bazar-Kurgon detained Askarov on June 15 on charges of "organizing mass disturbances" and "inciting interethnic hatred." He was not formally charged until June 18, although Kyrgyz law requires charges to be brought within 48 hours.
Authorities have denied Askarov unimpeded access to a lawyer of his choosing. For the first week, they refused to allow an independent lawyer to meet with him. On June 20, after Human Rights Watch intervened, Askarov was allowed to meet with a lawyer provided by a local human rights organization. Despite repeated requests from a Human Rights Watch researcher, several police officers in the room refused to leave during the meeting.
Human Rights Watch then raised the issue with Abdullah Bakirov, the provincial prosecutor in charge of the case, and he gave assurances that Askarov would have unimpeded access to his lawyer and that they could meet in private. Yet, when another lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, went to see him on June 22, the deputy prosecutor of Bazar-Kurgon, Jamilya Turazhanova was present during the entire meeting.
The deputy prosecutor denied Toktakunov's request on June 22 for a private conversation with his client, citing the "internal instructions" of the facility. Toktakunov said that a guard and the head of the facility were standing within earshot during his meeting with Askarov. Toktakunov also said that the staff refused to allow Askarov to keep copies of the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes of Kyrgyzstan and reading glasses, which the lawyer had brought Askarov at his request.
While the presence of the police prevented Askarov from talking freely, Askarov showed his lawyer bruises on his left side and lower back, which the lawyer photographed. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he believed the bruises were marks of severe beatings that Askarov suffered shortly after he had been detained.
Toktakunov immediately submitted a motion for a medical examination of Askarov, but the deputy prosecutor rejected the motion, saying an examination had already been conducted. She refused to provide the lawyer with a copy of the medical report.
Askarov is being held at the Bazar-Kurgon district police station. A police officer from this station was killed and several injured during the mass disturbances that Askarov is accused of organizing. When Human Rights Watch arrived at the police station on June 20, officers on duty were incensed by Human Rights Watch's concerns about Askarov. One of them said, "You may believe he is clean and innocent, but we know that he is a piece of shit." Another officer added that Askarov should be promptly executed.
"As long as Askarov is in the custody of police officers who want to tear him apart, his life and well-being are in real danger," Neistat said. "Prosecutors should immediately investigate the credible allegations of torture, and Askarov should be freed on bail while any charges and evidence to support them are reviewed independently."
Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, requires that anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge be brought promptly before a judge or other judicial officer for an examination of the charges and given a timely trial or released. Authorities should release a person facing trial, in the absence of objective, legitimate reasons to keep them in remand. Given credible allegations that Askarov has been subjected to torture, the evident hostility against him by staff at the station where he is being held, and the circumstances in which he was arrested, Human Rights Watch believes that he should be released immediately.
In a troubling new development, Askarov's lawyer appears to have come under attack for having taken on his defense. On June 23, a group of about a dozen women and men surrounded and threatened him with violence as he was entering the Bazar-Kurgon prosecutor's office. Responding to Human Rights Watch's call regarding the incident, Bakirov said the crowd had probably been relatives of the police officer who was killed. The prosecutor refused to take any action in relation to the incident.
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 (Principles 16, 17).
Askarov is director of Air, a local human rights organization, and is active in the Jalal-Abad province human rights network "Justice." For several years his work has focused on documenting prison conditions and police treatment of detainees.
Askarov documented violence and looting that took place in Bazar-Kurgon following the eruption of violence in Osh that began June 10, including how police in one location took no action to stop it. The Russian human rights group Memorial Human Rights Center reported that Askarov's brother, who was detained along with Askarov but subsequently released, said that police demanded that Askarov tell them the location of the video recorder that he used to document the violence and the film clips he shot.
On June 15, the day Askarov was detained, police searched his home. When Askarov's wife tried to prevent them from entering the courtyard, they reportedly shot at the gates and into the air, eventually gaining access to the home. They returned for another search on June 17.