Azimjon Askarov has been wrongfully languishing in a Kyrgyzstan jail for six years. On October 4, a Bishkek court will have the chance to right a grievous wrong and – finally – set the elderly human rights defender free.
I remember how a couple of years before his arrest, Askarov and I and a group of human rights activists gathered in Bishkek for a training, took to the dance floor of a café where we had eaten dinner. Azimjon Askarov, now 65, not only worked hard to expose police abuse in his hometown in southern Kyrgyzstan, he also embraced opportunities to get up and dance.
Kyrgyz authorities accused Askarov of participating in the murder of a police officer during ethnic clashes in 2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan and sentenced him to life in prison. He was ill-treated and tortured after his arrest and denied a fair trial.
The conviction has not held up to scrutiny. The United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded in March that Kyrgyz authorities arbitrarily detained Askarov, held him in inhumane conditions, tortured him without redress, and denied him a fair trial, and as such, should release him immediately. However, rather than comply with their international legal obligations “immediately”, the Kyrgyz authorities persisted with Askarov’s unlawful detention, kicking his case back to the courts and insisting that his release requires a court ruling.
In July, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court said that the Committee’s decision constituted new evidence in Askarov’s case, raising hopes he might at last walk free. But the court squandered the opportunity to release him, and simply ordered a retrial.
The retrial starts October 4 in Bishkek. While the hearings proceed Askarov will remain wrongfully imprisoned. While it’s not clear what the court will do, it is very clear that Askarov’s prolonged imprisonment is a continuing violation of his rights and Kyrgyzstan’s obligations.
Every day of Askarov’s continued imprisonment is a travesty – for him, for his family, and for so many who have been calling for his release.
It’s high time for justice to prevail, however belatedly, so that Askarov might dance once again.