Azimjan Askarov, a human rights defender from Kyrgyzstan’s southern town of Bazar-Korgon, turned 60 in May in a prison cell in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. His colleagues from several Kyrgyz human rights groups marked his birthday with an exhibition of his paintings in Bishkek, recalling that he has always been an enthusiastic painter. His peaceful landscapes and rural scenes from the Ferghana valley in southern Kyrgyzstan stand as a rebuke to the June 2010 ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that took at least 470 lives, and to the repression that ensued.
Askarov is the most well known political prisoner in Kyrgyzstan, and is recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. For many years he had exposed police abuse in his region. In one renowned case in 2006, he defended two residents of Bazar-Korgon who had been accused of murder by producing as a witness the very woman 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. Not surprisingly, this earned Askarov the ill-will of the local law-enforcement agencies.
Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was detained on June 15, 2010, in Bazar-Korgon after the violence in the area that erupted when a policeman was killed. In violation of Kyrgyz legislation, he was held in pre-trial detention at the local police station, not in an institution of the Ministry of Justice. To make things worse, it was the same police station where the deceased policeman had been based.
Askarov was tortured during his first days in detention. When he was finally transferred in October to a prison in Bishkek, he wrote an account of what had happened. Accustomed to reporting on human rights violations inflicted on others, he thoroughly described the beatings he himself endured:
I said that I have never heard anything about guns. Then [a policeman’s name] took me out of the building and handed me over to the officers who were outside. They gave me a bag and told me to gather the garbage.
They took pictures of me on their phone cameras and laughed at me: 'Now you will serve us!'
I do not know how many people attacked me, but it seemed like they were kicking a football. I fell, someone stepped on my neck and others beat me where they only could. When spume appeared on my lips, someone cried: 'Stop it, you will kill him!'
I had obeyed an order to stand up, and then they ordered me to sing a song praising the Kyrgyz Republic. Then they took me in the office and officers said me: 'People believe you: that means that now you will write that so-and-so people have distributed five guns to those-and-those people.' I refused: how can I write about those things, that I did not even see and know. Someone from the back lashed me with the butt of a pistol; the blood gushed out. The policemen made me wipe up the blood. Then they started to kick me again.
He also gave a video interview about the treatment he endured (in Russian only).
Askarov was not allowed to see his defense counsel in private for approximately two months, and his counsel was also attacked twice when he came to Bazar-Korgon police station, and received death threats in the presence of the authorities in August 2010. The prosecutor’s office widely distributed a press-release announcing that Askarov’s guilt had been "fully proved" before the trial took place.
The threat of more physical violence meant the defense was subsequently not able to bring witnesses to court. Any attempt to raise the issue of torture and other rights abuses during the trial also resulted in threats, and sometimes physical attacks against defendants and lawyers, including in the court room, from a crowd identified as the relatives of the deceased policeman.
Askarov, tried with seven co-defendants, was sentenced on September 15, 2010, on charges including complicity in murder, inciting ethnic hatred and hostage taking, exactly three months after the day of his arrest. To everybody’s shock, the judge sentenced Askarov to life imprisonment, a sentence that was upheld by an appeals court in November. The Supreme Court accepted the applications of the defense in February 2011, but then the case was indefinitely postponed.
The trial provoked harsh criticism, with Human Rights Watch describing the guilty verdict as "a mockery of the defendants' right to a fair trial, the victims' right to justice, and Kyrgyzstan's justice system."
Askarov’s case is seen by many in the international community as a litmus test of whether the Kyrgyz government is ready to stop abuses against the ethnic Uzbeks following the ethnic violence. So far the results are not encouraging. This month saw the report of an international commission of inquiry into last year’s violence. It concluded that "arrests, criminal investigations and trials after June events have been selective targeting so far primarily ethnic Uzbek minority. There is also evidence which indicates that acts of torture have been committed in detention centers by the authorities."
The Kyrgyz government responded by calling the report one sided. In a move that Kyrgyz Human Rights Defenders Council called a "shameful decision," the Kyrgyz parliament declared the head of the international commission persona non grata on May 25.
The Open Society Justice Initiative has joined Kyrgyz NGOs in providing legal assistance for Askarov. We are also acting as a co-counsel in preparing a complaint on his behalf to the UN Human Rights Committee.
Those of us who are lucky enough to have met him know that Askarov’s paintings are illustrative of his personality. Askarov gave the name Vozdukh, the Russian word for "air", to the human rights group he founded in Bazar-Korgon. He always said that human rights are like air: absolutely vital, and impossible to live without.
He is now held in a basement cell in prison in Bishkek, sentenced to life by an unfair trial that was marred by torture, violence and threats.
Many happier birthdays, Azimjan! I hope that the Kyrgyz authorities will find the courage to act against the injustice you suffered and you will celebrate the next birthday with your family and friends.