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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.  © 2016 Vladimir Voronin/AP Photo

After nearly 10 years in prison, an ailing human rights defender will plead his case for freedom before Kyrgyzstan’s highest court this week.  

Azimjon Askarov, who is serving a lifetime sentence after multiple, egregious miscarriages of justice in his protracted case, has no further options for appeal. He turns 69 this month. There would be no better way for him to celebrate his birthday than walking out of prison a free man.

By law he should already have been released. The United Nations Human Rights Committee – the independent expert body that adjudicates complaints regarding violations of individual’s civil and political rights – found that in 2016, Askarov was arbitrarily detained, denied a fair trial, and tortured, and ruled he should be released immediately and his conviction quashed. A Kyrgyz court in September 2010 had found Askarov guilty of participating in mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred, and abetting the murder of a police officer.

There are medical and humanitarian grounds for his release too. Askarov’s health has deteriorated significantly during his imprisonment. He suffers from cardiac and respiratory conditions and has not received appropriate medical attention in prison. More worryingly, during this Covid-19 pandemic, Askarov is a member of not one, but two high-risk populations. The coronavirus disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying illnesses. And poor access to sanitation and health care in prison and proximity to other inmates means Covid-19 can rapidly spread among people in detention.

There is also one more compelling reason: it is the right and just thing to do.

Come June, Askarov will have already served 10 years in prison, despite a deeply flawed trial and credible allegations of torture which were never investigated. He will never get that time back. Nothing justifies his continued detention.

Grant Askarov his freedom.

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