It has been more than two years since the arrest of Azimjan Askarov, a human rights defender from southern Kyrgyzstan. Despite a continuing efforts by global human rights groups to secure his release, and clear indications that his trial was a sham and that he was tortured in prison, the Kyrgyz authorities still refuse to release him. Each day he is in jail, on bogus charges in retaliation for his human rights activities, is one day too many.
Azimjan was a local activist, known and highly respected in his lcommunity and in Kyrgyzstan in general. But his amazing work was less well known internationally. In our recent submission to the EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue, the Open Society Justice Initiative described in detail human rights violations that marred his arrest, prosecution and trial: torture, lack of safeguards against torture, failure to conduct an effective investigation and provide redress; arbitrary and unlawful detention, discrimination; violation of pre-trial rights and rights to fair trial; violation of rights as a human rights defender.
But I would like to look back at the work Azimjan did for more than a decade in Kyrgyzstan, work that is widely believed to be a real reason for his detention, torture and imprisonment.
Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, is the director of the human rights organization Vozdukh (which means "Air' in Russian), based in southern Kyrgyzstan. He had been documenting the violence in the south of Kyrgyzstan that erupted in 2010 when he was detained, held without formal registration for 24 hours by the local police, tortured, and sentenced by a sham trial to life imprisonment. A regional human rights portal, Voice of Freedom, published some of his pictures documenting the destruction on his native village of Bazar-Korgon and surroundings in the violence. The album also has the last pictures of Azimjan in Moscow, right before his return to Kyrgyzstan, his arrest and torture.
In March 2011, the Czech human rights organization People in Need awarded Mr. Askarov its Homo Homini Award, based on his perseverance “despite threats, detention and imprisonment along with physical abuse” and “his long-term and dangerous work in human rights promotion”. In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists honored him with the CPJ International Press Freedom Award.
The connection between Askarov's work as a human rights defender and his imprisonment was unofficially acknowledged in 20111 by Roza Otunbaeva, then president of Kyrgyzstan, in a conversation with an Asia Society fellow who quoted her as saying: "It's a very controversial story… It's about a murdered policeman, and all the testimony came from his colleagues. There's a sense of solidarity here, absolutely. He was a human-rights defender, he annoyed the policemen, the local authorities. Perhaps there's an element of revenge on their part… Nationalism has grown immensely, particularly in the south. It's hard to work in this situation."
For more than ten years, Azimjan had focused on documenting prison conditions and police ill-treatment of detainees in Bazar-Korgon and other parts of the Jalal-Abad province. In 2001, he was the first human rights defender in Kyrgyzstan to receive permission from the state authorities to monitor places of detention. He reported then a case in which 53 detainees were beaten by more than 30 special forces as a punishment for praying in their cells.
As a result of public advocacy by Askarov, including a documentary, four police officers were prosecuted, received suspended sentence and paying a fine.
After that, he was involved in documenting and publicizing numerous instances of police abuse and misconduct in Kyrgyzstan, abuses that he highlighted in critical articles in the media. In 2002, he drew attention to the deaths in custody of while in police hands of two detainees; four policemen were subsequently fired.
We worked with Azimjan on the case of Tashkenbai Moidunov, an ethnic Kyrgyz from Bazar-Korgon, who was killed at a local police station in 2004. Azimjan found a local lawyer who represented Moidunov's family, while the Justice Initiative helped the lawyer to bring the case to the UN Human Rights Committee. In 2011, the HRC rules against Kyrgyzstan over the killing, and the lack of a proper investigation.
Azimjan had other successes in his efforts to hold the local police accountable. In March 2003, he documented and publicized the police abuse of four women. One, a 23 year old, was detained and held in pre-trial detention at the Bazar-Korgon police station for seven months. During that time, she was abused and raped by police officers, and sold by them as a sexual slave to other detainees. Azimjan publicized the abuse, and filed complaints with the authorities. Eventually, the woman was released, while two investigators were fired and five police officers were criminally prosecuted.
In another renowned case, in 2006, he defended two residents of Bazar-Korgon who had been accused of murder by bringing to court the very woman, Mairam Zairova, that the police claimed had been murdered. One of the two defendants, also a woman, had previously confessed to the supposed murder, but only after being tortured by the police. The press reported that several prosecutors were later fired for incompetence.
The police in Bazar-Korgon did not hide their contempt for Askarov. In one account, the same Asia Society fellow mentioned above was told by one of the policeman who was a witness at Askarov’s trial that Askarov “had always looked for conflicts with the police”. In the rape case, he argued that Askarov “exaggerated the case to make the police look bad”.
When Azimjan was arrested and tortured in the very same police station that was subject for more than a decade of his human rights investigations and reporting, the police laughed at him “Now it is your turn to serve us”.
Now Askarov is in prison. His health will continue to deteriorate while he is held in a basement cell. According to a renowned US medical expert who examined him last year, some of his injuries require urgent treatment—and he is not getting the treatment he needs. The European Union and Kyrgyzstan’s other international partners should not turn blind eye to this. There must be a united international call for the unconditional release of Azimjan Askarov.