Ethnic Uzbek journalist Azimzhan Askarov, who was arbitrarily arrested, tortured, convicted after an unfair trial and jailed for life looks through metal bars during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

Governments in Central Asia have in recent days stepped up measures to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On March 22, Kyrgyzstan’s government declared a state of emergency and introduced restrictions on public life. Such measures are important and should aim in particular to protect the most vulnerable in society.

The crisis presents serious risks to Kyrgyzstan’s prisoners. Azimjon Askarov, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent human rights activists, has spent nearly 10 years behind bars. Nothing justifies his detention and he should be released, all the more urgently now on humanitarian grounds.

Askarov was sentenced in September 2010 to life in prison, following the tragic wave of inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead and thousands of homes destroyed. His trial was marred with serious procedural violations, vague and poorly substantiated charges of inciting ethnic hatred and social disorder, and allegations of torture that were never investigated.

In 2016, a United Nations top human rights body found that Askarov’s detention was arbitrary and ordered his release. But Kyrgyzstan authorities have repeatedly failed to implement this ruling. A hearing at the country’s Supreme Court, scheduled for April 6, 2020, could be the last chance for Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary to offer him justice. 

That hearing may be delayed due to the COVID-19 state of emergency. The Supreme Court has already announced that, due to current health concerns, observers will not be allowed to attend trials in coming weeks.

People in detention are particularly at risk from coronavirus because of poor access to health care and close proximity among inmates.

Kyrgyzstan authorities should take urgent measures to guarantee adequate medical care and protective measures against COVID-19 for all prisoners and prison staff. Reducing prison populations including by releasing low-risk detainees is key to limiting exposure to the virus in detention.