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Adam Shapiro reports from Kyrgyzstan where he met Kahdija Askarov wife of jailed human rights defender Azimjan Askarov.
Khadija Askarov lives in her and her husband’s home in Bazaar Korgon, in an area of town devastated during the inter-ethnic clashes in 2010. The town, and parts of towns all over southern Krygyzstan, is still being rebuilt with some help from UNHCR, but mostly from efforts within the Uzbek community.
It was during that time that Azimjan was arrested and ultimately charged with the murder of a policeman in a sham trial aimed at eliminating him as a community leader.
Today Azimjan sits in an underground cell in a prison in Bishkek, and although it is a much improved detention than his previous jail cells, it is another world entirely from his home.
Upon entering the gate to the compound, you walk a few meters and find yourself in the most pleasant of gardens surrounded by the house. To the left, on the main floor, is a room where Khadija keeps all the paintings Azimjan is doing in prison. It was there that they used to paint together – she would draw and he would paint.
In front of the room, is a platform covered with rugs for sitting, drinking tea, eating and generally relaxing in the outdoors. Above, vines intertwine above, with their fruits hanging – grapes (green, red and purple) and watermelon. Roses bloom from bushes around the garden, and in the back is an outdoor oven for baking traditional bread.
Serene and idyllic, this is the home that Azimjan and Khadija built for their family, and you can tell that this was a place of happiness, even if the work Azimjan was doing dealt with some of the uglier sides of the human condition.
Khadija met our group with warmth and a strength that you would not expect to find after the ordeal she has been through. Bursting with energy, she was moving all over the place, speaking in rapid fire to explain all the things she wanted us to know about the case, the witnesses, the lawyers, the prosecution and her husband. Finally, she sat down for an interview and told us about their lives together.
Throughout the meeting, the spectre of the secret police hovered above us, as we had been followed earlier in the day when trying to film around the town. And though the system is rigged against her husband, Khadija insists on persisting in the fight to set him free.
She says she cannot draw now, that she cannot summon the ability with her mind absorbed with her husband’s plight. By contrast, it is his artwork that is giving Azimjan strength in prison and serving as some means to break the sense of isolation and despair. And when she retrieves his paintings, it gives Khadija a connection to her husband despite his imprisonment.
Leaving Khadija, we took with us a sack of food and other small items to bring to Azimjan in prison back in Bishkek. But most importantly, she gave us a picture of her kids in Tashkent, which she took when she was recently there for some medical issues. She told us to make sure he got the photo, as it would ease his heart.