The European Union’s ties with Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, are getting closer. Both parties are negotiating an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, an upgraded, comprehensive agreement that covers the scope of their bilateral relationship. But the European Parliament is not ready to give it the green light just yet.

In a resolution adopted on 15 January, it called on the EU to “ensure a firm engagement from both sides to respect and advance democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law,” and listed key human rights issues that Kyrgyzstan still needs to address.

The human rights concerns the European Parliament highlighted include press freedom, torture, bans on certain journalists and human rights workers from entering Kyrgyzstan, and the need to uphold human rights in the country’s efforts to deal with terrorism and extremism.

Azimjan Askarov in an undated photograph before his imprisonment.

But most urgently, the European Parliament expressed “dissatisfaction…with the upholding of the life sentence handed down to human rights activist Azimjon Askarov,” and requested his “immediate release,” as well as quashing his conviction, rehabilitating him and providing him with reparations. Askarov is one of the country’s most courageous human rights activists, who was unfairly sentenced to life in prison over eight years ago.

The European Parliament resolution echoes the March 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision on Askarov’s case, which found that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured in custody and denied a fair trial.

Yet, Askarov – now a frail 68-year-old – remains wrongfully and unjustly serving a life sentence.

He was arrested in June 2010 following an outbreak of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that led to the killing of hundreds of people and the destruction of close to 2,000 homes. Askarov - who documented and wrote about police abuse - was arrested for allegedly participating in the killing of a police officer in the village of Bazar Kurgan. His trial was marred by procedural violations and violence. The court refused to investigate his credible allegations of torture in detention, before convicting him and imposing the longest possible sentence.

Many EU officials consider Kyrgyzstan the country in Central Asia with the greatest human rights potential. While it boasts a very active and engaged civil society, Askarov’s imprisonment, and the government’s abject failure to act on the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision in his case, along with other pressing rights issues the European Parliament noted in its resolution, should give EU officials considerable pause.

The text adopted on 15 January is the European Parliament’s response to the EU Commission’s negotiations on a stronger partnership deal with Kyrgyzstan. Since December 2017, when the EU and Kyrgyzstan began negotiating an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU has said that negotiations are “based on the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.” Yet it cannot be lost on EU officials that Kyrgyzstan flouts the very values the EU claims to share with Kyrgyzstan by keeping Askarov arbitrarily locked up, despite the UN Human Rights Committee ruling.

The European Parliament’s resolution should serve to renew the EU’s commitment to see Askarov free. The EU’s top diplomats, including Federica Mogherini, should make it clear that this needs to happen before any new deal is finalized. Kyrgyzstan should have no doubt that in order to demonstrate that its commitment to human rights values is meaningful and not for show, it has to end Azimjon Askarov’s unjust and unlawful imprisonment.