Patricia Flor, the European Union’s Special Representative for Central Asia, paid her first visit to Kyrgyzstan earlier this summer. In the capital, Bishkek, the diplomatic talk was of supporting democracy, the rule of law, and reconciliation after a brutal outbreak of ethnic violence in 2010 involving ethnic Kyrgyz and the country’s Uzbek minority.
But the European Union needs to be clear that this agenda will mean nothing unless the government of President Almazbek Atambayev releases Azimjan Askarov, an ailing 61-year old human rights defender and journalist now serving a life sentence in a prison in Bishkek.
Askarov is the founder or a small NGO, called Vozdukh (Russian for “air”), based in his home town of Bazar-Korgon and devoted to challenging the endemic use of torture and abuse as by police across Kyrgyzstan. In one renowned case in 2006, he secured the release of a woman who had confesses to a murder under police torture, by producing the supposed victim alive and well. In another, he exposed the repeated rape and abuse of a woman at the local police station, leading to criminal charges against the police officers involved.
But in the aftermath of the ethnic violence that exploded in the south of Kyrgyzstan in June two years ago, Askarov— an ethnic Uzbek—found himself arrested. He was accused of organizing violence in Bazar-Korgon that had led to the death of one local policeman and the wounding of several others. He was given the standard treatment by the local police: severe beatings that left him badly bruised, and the denial of proper access to a lawyer. One officer told a Human Rights Watch investigator who sought to visit Askarov in jail: “You may believe he is clean and innocent, but we know that he is a piece of shit".
The eventual trial was a travesty; Askarov’s lawyers came under physical attack inside and outside the courtroom from relatives of the victim; they were unable to file exonerating witness statements. When the case came before the Kyrgyz Supreme Court, the judges ignored the evidence from the defense, upheld the conviction. Naturally, they failed to order an investigation of the complaints of torture, in violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations.
Askarov’s individual case makes a mockery of justice in Kyrgyzstan.
But it is also a symbol of the wider continuing failure of the country’s government to deal properly with the aftermath of the 2010 violence, which left hundreds dead (around three quarters of them ethnic Uzbeks like Askarov). Amnesty International reported in June that “torture and other ill-treatment, including beatings, by law enforcement officers appear to continue to be routine”. It found that the predominantly Kyrgyz police officers “continue to target Uzbek neighborhoods and Uzbeks”, and that “presumption of innocence is absent in trials” as judges respond to political pressure. Kyrgyzstan needs to restore faith in its entire judicial system if it is to move forwards; undoing the injustice suffered by Askarov would be a symbolically important first step.
Askarov’s case also has implications that go beyond the troubled situation in southern Kyrgyzstan. Across Central Asia, and despite millions of euros in aid and assistance over 20 years of independence, the local police still believe that investigating a crime involves beating a conviction out of a suspect. Askarov was one of a core of dedicated and brave individuals who chose to challenge this routine abuse, until he fell victim to it himself.
Just as the West supported intellectual dissidents who challenged the monolith of Communism, so today we need to support the new “rule of law” dissidents in Central Asia, who stand up for the rights of the suspect held in a police cell. The long term stability and development of the region depends ultimately on their fate; neither Europe nor the U.S. should allow strategic considerations to undermine the message that human rights defenders such as Askarov must be protected.
When the EU holds its periodic dialogue on human rights with Kyrgyzstan this month, it should link future budgetary and macro-financial support to measures to promote national reconciliation and remedy. The EU should also make clear that future cooperation and financing depends on the release of Askarov, the quashing of his evidently flawed conviction, and a proper investigation into the torture he suffered.