(New York) - A Kyrgyz court on September 15, 2010, sentenced a human rights defender to life in prison for his alleged role in the June violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, following court hearings marred by violence and threats against the defense. Human Rights Watch urged the Kyrgyz government to guarantee a fair and public retrial for the rights defender, Azimjon Askarov, and his co-defendants and to free him pending the retrial.
The government should guarantee all of the defendants' due process rights, including their safety and that of the defense lawyers and witnesses, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have on several occasions also expressed concern about police mistreatment of Askarov.
"The authorities completely failed to guarantee the safety of defense lawyers and witnesses," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The trial should have been about justice - but instead it played out like vengeance."
Askarov is director of Air, a local human rights organization, and had been active in the Jalal-Abad province human rights network called Justice. For several years his work focused on documenting prison conditions and police treatment of detainees.
The Bazar-Kurgan District Court found Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, guilty on charges including hostage-taking, inciting ethnic hatred, participation and organization of mass disorder, and complicity in murder. Most of the charges derive from an incident in which a group killed a policeman and injured several officers during mass disturbances in Bazar-Kurgan in June. The sanction imposed, which Askarov will appeal, also includes confiscation of Askarov's property.
The court heard numerous witnesses for the prosecution, but none for the defense. Askarov's lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the defense lawyers felt they could not endanger witnesses by calling them to the stand. During the trial, the victim's relatives and supporters threatened and struck Askarov's lawyer, shouted threats and insults at the defense team, and beat defendants' relatives, who were outside the courthouse. Police were present, but they took no action.
The court sentenced four of Askarov's co-defendants to life in prison, two others to 20 years, and one to 9 years.
At today's hearings the victim's relatives shouted insults and threats, including, "Kill them!" and "Give them the death sentence." The judge ordered one of the relatives to be removed from the courtroom, after which the atmosphere improved a bit, according to an observer who was at the trial.
After the hearing, the victim's relatives chased away the relatives of the defendants, who were waiting outside the courtroom to learn news of the verdict.
The Bazar-Kurgan District Court began hearing the case on September 2, in the town of Nooken in southern Kyrgyzstan. Askarov's lawyer tried unsuccessfully to have the trial hearings moved from southern Kyrgyzstan to ensure the safety of defense witnesses, lawyers, and the defendants themselves.
Prior to the trial, on three occasions after Askarov's arrest on June 15, angry groups, which allegedly included relatives of the police officer who was killed, threatened and physically attacked Askarov's lawyer. Local authorities did not respond to these threats and attacks, even though they took place on the premises of government municipal and law enforcement agencies.
On the second day of the trial, three of the defendants, including Askarov, appeared in the courtroom with black eyes - but they seemed too terrified to complain of any ill-treatment. Askarov told the court that he had been bruised when he bumped into a detainee in front of him - three times - while being transferred to the courtroom.
Askarov and his co-defendants are among more than 250 people charged with criminal offenses in relation to the June violence. The vast majority, according to official data as of August, are ethnic Uzbeks. Askarov's was one of the the first high-profile cases related to the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan to go to trial.
"The Kyrgyz authorities have a long way to go to show they can hold fair trials for the June violence," Berg said. "But a good first step would be to correct yesterday's injustice."