Human rights defender Azimjon Askarov has spent 10 years in prison in Kyrgyzstan. He is now seriously ill and at extreme risk of contracting Covid-19.
Askarov’s lawyer, Valeryan Vakhitov, visited him in prison on July 22. He told me that Askarov is unable to walk on his own, has no appetite, has lost weight, and that his skin looked yellowish in color. Vakhitov told me that prison medics are administering Askarov glucose shots because Askarov has not been eating, but did not inform him that Askarov is getting any other treatment.
Askarov told Vakhitov he is unable to sleep and that his body temperature rises and falls sharply, causing him to break out in sweats.
Soon after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic and Kyrgyzstan confirmed its first cases, eight human rights organizations signed a letter to President Sooronbay Jeenbekov calling on him to release Askarov. Because of his age at 69 years old, his prolonged prison sentence, and his underlying health conditions – Askarov has suffered cardiac and respiratory problems in the past – he is among those at greatest risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19. Covid-19 can rapidly spread among people in detention, particularly when they are held near one another and lack adequate access to health care, water, and sanitation.
As long as Kyrgyz authorities wrongfully keep Askarov behind bars, they are exposing him to a significant risk of contracting Covid-19, which given his age and state of health, could be fatal.
Kyrgyzstan is among the countries with the fastest growing number of confirmed Covid-19 infections, and, according to media reports, its health system is overwhelmed as it struggles to respond to new infections.
We don’t know whether Askarov has Covid-19. Authorities have not tested him for the virus. But he is certainly in need of urgent and adequate medical assessment and attention.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan are responsible and liable for Askarov’s fate and well-being while he is in state custody. We should also never forget that he should not be in prison. In 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Committee found Askarov was arbitrarily detained, denied a fair trial, and tortured, and instructed he be released immediately.
Kyrgyz authorities should urgently release Askarov and ensure he can undergo a thorough medical examination and has access to the care he so clearly needs.
Doing so has become a matter of life and death.