In December Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek from southern Kyrgyzstan, found out he will likely die in prison. The Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan upheld a life sentence against the 60-year-old human rights defender following a manifestly unfair trial in 2010.
Nearly two years on from the ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan’s Osh and surrounding cities which left at least 470 dead, the country remains unstable. Nationalist and racist rhetoric is on the rise, and whilst the UNHCR has reported on the return of a number of ethnic minority refugees to their homes in the South, there are still fears for safety and the rule of law, and a credible risk of further unrest. The right of all citizens to apply to the justice system and trust that they will have equal access to justice and a fair trial regardless of their ethnic origin are cornerstones of human and national security and essential for progress towards stability.
Askarov’s trial was marred by physical attacks on his legal team and threats against defense witnesses by groups identifying themselves as relatives of a policeman in whose murder he is accused of being complicit. The proceedings were widely condemned as unfair by human rights groups and other international observers.
Worse has followed. A leading medical expert on evaluating trauma related to torture, diagnosed Askarov with sustained, severe, and lasting physical injuries since his arrest. He needs immediate medical help for persistent visual loss, traumatic brain injury, and spinal injury as well as treatment for a chronic and potentially life-threatening illness.
International human rights groups are watching this case closely. Over 50 organizations from Europe, the U.S., and the former Soviet Union have written to the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging them to raise the matter of Askarov with the authorities. Human rights organizations have also written to Kyrgyz President Atambayev calling for Askarov’s release on humanitarian grounds.
Similar calls have been sent to the Kyrgyz Ambassador in Brussels. Requests for a meeting to discuss the case have been ignored. Despite the best efforts of the international community, including the EU and U.S., to engage the Kyrgyz authorities there are few in the government willing to discuss the case–and little political will or courage, to act to correct a blatant miscarriage of justice.
Members of Kyrgyzstan’s ruling elite cannot continue to hide from their responsibilities to safeguard human rights and the rule of law for all Kyrgyz citizens. Askarov’s story, of reported police beatings and fears for his physical safety in the lawless courtrooms of Bazar Korgan in southern Kyrgyzstan, is symptomatic of failing justice. Ethnic Uzbeks face injustices meted out by a largely mono-ethnic police and security forces and court authorities. Despite the majority of the casualties of the violence being from the Uzbek community, official figures in late 2010 revealed that of 271 individuals in custody, 230 were ethnic Uzbek and 29 ethnic Kyrgyz. According to Amnesty International Kyrgyz courts have handed down 27 life sentences—all to Uzbeks. Those like Askarov, the director of Vozdukh (Air), a human rights group based in Bazar Korgan who previously highlighted police brutality against minorities, make easy targets for the settling of scores in an atmosphere of impunity and inter-ethnic tension.
It is in the interests of the Kyrgyz government to preserve national unity and stability by actively promoting reconciliation. The release of Azimzhan Askarov, reviewing other cases mishandled by biased courts, and prosecuting the torturers will go some way to relieving tensions. A stable future in Kyrgyzstan depends on citizens being able to seek redress and remedy through courts independent of political pressure, and civil society must be able to enter into a dialogue with the government on these issues, rather than speaking into the void.