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No Justice 3 Years After Kyrgyzstan Rights Defender’s Death

Complete Azimjon Askarov Investigation; Provide Redress

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

Azimjon Askarov, a human rights defender and advocate for marginalized communities in southern Kyrgyzstan, should have turned 72 this year. He should be enjoying life with his wife, children, and grandchildren, happily painting landscapes and portraits. Instead, he died in prison three years ago today, held on spurious charges. For this, no one has been held responsible.

Askarov had been serving a life sentence following an unfair trial on politically motivated charges relating to the June 2010 inter-ethnic conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.

In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained and called for his immediate release. Kyrgyzstan’s government did not comply, in violation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Kyrgyzstan’s prison service said Askarov died on July 25, 2020 of complications from Covid-19. However, 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, as well as various international bodies, prison authorities refused to release Askarov on humanitarian grounds.

An investigation into his death was rife with procedural violations and conflicts of interest, and the authorities closed the case in June 2021.

After repeated appeals and mounting pressure from national and international human rights organizations, the investigation was reopened in September 2021. However, Bir Duino, a human rights organization representing Askarov’s widow, Khadicha Askarova, told Human Rights Watch there has been no public report outlining the investigation’s findings and that authorities returned the case to prison authorities, raising concerns about the investigation’s fairness.

Askarov’s arbitrary arrest, unfair trial, and mistreatment in prison reflect Kyrgyzstan’s broader politicization of justice. Two dozen activists, journalists, and politicians are currently being tried behind closed doors for involvement in a peaceful protest over water resource management. They’ve been in pretrial custody since October 2022. A spate of new legislative proposals aims to crack down on media and civil society.

In February, Kyrgyzstan became a member of the UN Human Rights Council, pledging to strengthen cooperation with international human rights mechanisms. To meet its commitment, the Kyrgyz government should respect the Human Rights Committee’s decision, quash Askarov’s conviction, complete an effective and impartial investigation into his death, and provide his family appropriate redress. But if it’s serious about righting the wrongs done to Azimjon Askarov, the government should urgently release all those wrongly imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights. 

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