(Berlin, July 23, 2022) Kyrgyz authorities have yet to conclude an effective investigation into the death of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov or provide redress for his decade of wrongful imprisonment, Human Right watch said today as the second anniversary of his death nears. The unresolved deaths in custody of two men in June 2022 raise renewed concerns over allegations of mistreatment and neglect in detention in Kyrgyzstan.
“The Kyrgyzstan government has obligations to ensure that the people it is holding in prison don’t experience inhuman or degrading treatment or conditions and receive adequate health care,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Azimjon Askarov’s death remains a dark stain on Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record, further marred by new deaths in custody in the Kyrgyz prison system.”
Askarov would have turned 71 on May 17, 2022, and was serving a life sentence, during which he experienced torture and ill-treatment. He was convicted in an unfair trial on politically motivated charges following the June 2010 inter-ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In a March 2016 decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), which supervises compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found that he had been arbitrarily detained and called for his immediate release. The Kyrgyzstan government did not comply, violating a core obligation as a party to the treaty. Askarov died on July 25, 2020, in what the country’s prison service said at the time was a Covid-19-related complication.
Human rights defenders have demanded an effective, independent investigation into Askarov’s death. The initial inquiry was led by the Kyrgyz Investigative Department of the State Penitentiary Service, the same authority that oversaw Askarov’s detention and medical care. The investigator for the prison service closed the case in June 2021, claiming there was no actual “body of crime” due to the challenging epidemiological situation in the Kyrgyz Republic at the time and the surge in Covid-19-related pneumonia cases.
The investigation was reopened in September 2021 after pressure mounted from national and international human rights organizations, with the Prosecutor General’s Office assigning the task to the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (SCNS). However, Bir Duino, a human rights organization representing Askarov’s widow, Khadicha Askarova, in her pursuit of justice for Askarov, has reported that the investigation has not made any progress.
Askarov’s health had deteriorated significantly during his imprisonment, and he became severely ill in the days before his death. Despite repeated requests from Askarov’s lawyers, the prison authorities refused to release Askarov on humanitarian grounds.
On June 10, 2022, a well-known political analyst, Marat Kazakpaev, charged with high treason in April 2021, died in detention in Bishkek in somewhat similar circumstances.
His wife had raised concerns about his health since April. On June 9, after he had a stroke, the Kyrgyz National Center for the Prevention of Torture submitted a request for Kazakpaev’s discharge on health grounds. He was transferred to a medical facility that day, already in a coma, and died on June 10.
Kazakpaev’s wife maintains he died from negligence by the detention center officers and alleged that he had been tortured.
On June 18, 2022, Bakyt Asanbaev, a bank official held in the security agency pretrial detention center in Bishkek on corruption charges since April 30, was found hanged in a jail cell. He died sometime after midnight, as his three cellmates were praying in an adjoining cell. They said they returned to find him dead.
Asanbaev was due in court on June 20, when his lawyers intended to ask to have him moved to house arrest pending trial. Asanbaev’s brother told the media that the autopsy showed that he had a fractured collarbone and ribs as well as hematomas and bruises above the elbow, consistent with ill-treatment.
Following Asanbaev’s death, Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov established a commission to study the circumstances of these two deaths in security agency pretrial detention centers. The commission consists of government representatives, members of parliament, and relatives of the deceased. The commission has yet to issue any conclusive opinions on the two deaths.
Torture remains a widespread practice in Kyrgyzstan detention facilities, the Kyrgyz Coalition Against Torture has reported. Negligence and low-quality medical care for those serving prison sentences often leads to deaths in detention. During the Covid-19 pandemic the Kyrgyz authorities refused to release prisoners to help curb the risk of transmission despite numerous requests by local and international organizations, also concealing information about the real rates of the infection’s spread within the detention system.
The Kyrgyz authorities should comply with their international human rights obligations and promptly complete an effective, independent, and impartial investigation into Askarov’s death, granting compensation to his family and posthumously ensuring his legal rehabilitation. The authorities should also ensure a similarly effective and impartial investigation into the deaths in custody of Kazakpaev and Asanbaev, with a view to holding to account those responsible for these deaths.
“Askarov’s death, compounded by the recent deaths of two more prisoners, will continue to mar Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record until the country’s authorities can fairly investigate and respond to these cases,” Sultanalieva said. “Institutions of law enforcement are subject to the rule of law, not beyond the reach of justice.”