Kyrgyzstan Held to Account for Activist's Torture and Death in Custody

Kyrgyzstan Held to Account for Activist's Torture and Death in Custody

NEW YORK—The UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) has again found Kyrgyzstan responsible for the death of a detainee in police custody, in a case that should strengthen the country’s stated commitment to end the systematic use of torture by its police.

The UN ruling in the case of Akunov v. Kyrgyzstan is the latest in a series to conclude that the Kyrgyz government failed to protect a detainee from torture and death in police custody, and then failed to hold to account those responsible.

Bektemir Akunov, a 53-year old political activist, was found dead in a police cell in the city of Naryn in central Kyrgyzstan on April 15, 2007. Prior to his arrest, he had participated in opposition protests in the capital, Bishkek, against the then president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Mr Akunov was detained overnight by police, after returning to Naryn and seeking official permission to stage a similar demonstration there. 

During the night, witnesses heard Mr Akunov repeatedly cry out that his life was in danger; the next day, he was found dead in his cell. A forensic medical examination of his body found multiple external abrasions and bruises, and extensive internal bleeding.

The Kyrgyz authorities claimed the death was a suicide, but conducted no proper independent investigation into the death.

The HRC ruling noted that Mr Akunov had no reason to commit suicide, and was actively engaged in the pursuit of his civic and political activism. It was also held that the Kyrgyz authorities had failed to give an adequate explanation for the serious injuries suffered.

In its ruling issued on November 18, the HRC called on Kyrgyzstan to carry out a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into the exact circumstances of the death, prosecute those responsible, and provide the family of the victim with adequate compensation and appropriate measures of satisfaction.

The Committee found Kyrgyzstan in violation of Article 6.1. (prohibition on the arbitrary deprivation of life), Article 7 (prohibition on torture), and Article 2.3 (failure to carry out a prompt and effective investigation into torture and arbitrary killing) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Kyrgyzstan was given six months to implement the decision, and report back on the steps taken in this regard.

The HRC also reiterated in clear terms the duty of the state to care for the life of all persons arrested and detained, and to investigate violations of their rights under the covenant.

The Open Society Justice Initiative and a Kyrgyz lawyer Kanat Djailoev acting on behalf of Urmatbek Akunov,  Mr Akunov’s son, had brought a complaint before the Human Rights Committee on October 3, 2011.

James Goldston, Executive Director of the Justice Initiative, said:

“This ruling reaffirms the absolute duty of all states to protect those in custody from torture, ill-treatment and degrading treatment, and to investigate in a prompt and thorough manner all allegations of serious violations. We urge the Kyrgyzstan government to implement this decision in good faith, ensuring the prevention of similar violations in the future.”

Urmatbek Akunov, son of the victim and the author of the complaint to the HRC, said: “The current government of Kyrgyzstan promised to properly investigate the death of my father, but it has failed to identify the policemen who were his killers, and offered an absolutely inadequate sum to compensate his family. After waiting  for justice now for almost ten years, we welcome this ruling from the HRC, and look forward to its proper implementation by the government.”

Kanat Djailoev, co-counsel in the case, said: “Mr. Akunov’s tragedy was a direct consequence of the violation of civil and political rights that occurred under former president Kurmanbek Bakiev.  It is vital that the current government take steps to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and proper accountability for this terrible crime, committed by the police who are supposed to defend, not violate, the rule of law.”

Akunov v. Kyrgyzstan is the fourth death in custody ruling against Kyrgyzstan from the Human Rights Committee in response to a series of complaints submitted by the Open Society Justice Initiative in cooperation with Kyrgyz lawyers and civil society groups. Previously, the Committee found Kyrgyzstan similarly responsible for arbitrary deprivation of life and subsequent failure to carry out an effective investigation, in the cases of Moidunov v. Kyrgyzstan,  Ernazarov v. Kyrgyzstan and Akmatov v Kyrgyzstan.

The HRC also ruled last year that Kyrgyzstan’s most famous imprisoned human rights defender, Azimjan Askarov, had been subject to police torture, in a case that led to him receiving a life sentence in prison after a manifestly unfair trial. Following the ruling, the authorities reopened Mr Askarov’s  appeal process, but Kyrgyzstan has not fulfilled  the HRC’s ruling that stated that the authorities had to immediately release Mr Askarov.

The government of Kyrgyzstan, now headed by President Almazbek Atambayev, recently responded to a series of critical rulings from the UN human rights treaty bodies by securing popular approval for the removal of a constitutional clause that has hitherto required the implementation of such decisions. The measure was among 26 constitutional issues that were passed in a simple yes-no referendum vote on December 11.

However, Kyrgyzstan remains a party  to a range of international human rights treaties, which require the implementation of HRC decisions.

Even as revised, the Kyrgyz constitution still provides for the rights of individuals to appeal to international bodies in the case of rights violations. In addition, the previous constitutional obligation should apply to all decisions issued while it was in force—such as the HRC ruling in Akunov v. Kyrgyzstan.