(Berlin) – Kyrgyz authorities should fulfill their obligation to carry out a thorough, independent investigation into the death in custody of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov on July 25, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today after a government authority ended its investigation.
The probe conducted by Kyrgyzstan’s prison service concluded that Askarov died from Covid-19-related complications and denied that he was mistreated in prison. But since the inquiry was conducted by the same authority that oversaw Askarov’s detention and medical care instead of an independent authority, it does not fulfill the Kyrgyz government’s legal obligation to conduct an effective investigation.
“Covid-19-related complications may have been a factor in how Askarov died, but what really led to Askarov’s death was his wrongful imprisonment for 10 years, as well as the Kyrgyz authorities’ sustained negligence and denial of adequate medical care,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities have an obligation to conduct an effective – meaning genuinely independent – investigation into all the circumstances of his death and to hold accountable those responsible for the decisions and actions that contributed to them.”
The inquiry by the Kyrgyz Investigative Department of the State Penitentiary Service lasted more than 10 months and was closed on May 28, 2021. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the resulting report, which was provided to Bir Duino, a human rights organization representing Askarov’s widow, Khadicha Askarova, as she pursues justice for Askarov.
The prison service report says that taking into account the challenging epidemiological situation in the Kyrgyz Republic at the time and the surge in the Covid-19-related cases of pneumonia in 2020 there was no actual “body of crime” and therefore no one could be held responsible for Askarov’s death. The investigator for the prison service closed the case.
Bir Duino submitted a complaint to the Sverdlov district court in Bishkek, challenging the decision to terminate the probe as illegal. Bir Duino said that the findings lack objectivity and impartiality, as the investigator for the prison service did not have prosecutorial authority.
The complaint submitted by Bir Duino, a copy of which is on file with Human Rights Watch, notes that under article 153 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code, the investigator should have ensured preservation of evidence and established the degree of involvement of persons of interest in the case, before submitting all details to national security agencies for further investigation. They contend that his decision to terminate the investigation altogether was beyond his competence.
The complaint also draws attention to the failure of the investigator to interview key witnesses, such as Khadicha Askarova, who has Askarov’s handwritten diary notes detailing the ill-treatment and inadequate quality of medical assistance that he experienced after July 9, 2020.
Another problematic aspect of the investigation, highlighted in the complaint, is that the investigator required Bir Duino to enter a nondisclosure agreement, which effectively prevented the organization from monitoring the investigation. It was also unable under the nondisclosure agreement to ask independent medical experts to review the quality of medical assistance provided to Askarov in his final days.
On July 1, 2021, a judge with the Sverdlov district court rejected the complaint, claiming it was filed after the time allowed by law for an appeal. Bir Duino said that its complaint was submitted within the permitted appeal time and intends to file a complaint with the disciplinary commission of judges about the judge who made the decision and will appeal to the Bishkek City Court.
Askarov, 69, was serving a life sentence imposed after an unfair trial on politically motivated charges, for which he was arbitrarily arrested and tortured. In a March 2016 decision, the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found that he was arbitrarily detained and called for his immediate release. The government of Kyrgyzstan failed to carry out the committee’s decision to free him, in violation of its core obligations as a party to the First Optional Protocol to the international treaty.
Askarov’s health had deteriorated significantly during his imprisonment, and he became severely ill in the days before his death. However, despite repeated requests from Askarov’s legal team and others the prison authorities refused to release Askarov on humanitarian grounds, even as the country was grappling with a surge of Covid-19-related pneumonia cases in July 2020.
Furthermore, the authorities refused to take steps to protect Askarov from the increased risks he faced in custody, claiming that Askarov was “doing well” as late as the day before his death. The prison authorities contend they took measures to protect Askarov’s health, which Bir Duino strenuously refutes.
The Kyrgyz authorities should immediately fulfill their obligation to conduct an effective independent investigation into Askarov’s death, and hold accountable those responsible for his wrongful imprisonment, ill-treatment, and death in custody, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also comply with the 2016 decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in his case, granting compensation to Askarov’s family for the rights violations he suffered and posthumously rehabilitate him.
Kyrgyzstan’s international partners, including the EU and the United States, should press the government to fulfill their obligations to investigate and provide his family with appropriate remedies, including compensation. They should also call on the government to initiate the process for Askarov’s judicial rehabilitation.
“Askarov should not have been in jail in the first place, and his death will remain a dark stain on Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record until the wrongs are righted,” Sultanalieva said. “The international community should maintain a spotlight on Kyrgyzstan until Bishkek fulfills its obligations in this case.”