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17 May 2016

Birthday Behind Bars in Kyrgyzstan for Azimjan Askarov

When I visited Azimjan Askarov in prison in Bishkek in December 2010 there were some grounds for hope that he would be released. He had been sentenced in September 2010 to life in prison, but the process had been seriously flawed and the Kyrgyz human rights Ombudsman had found that the charges against him were politically motivated. When we met with Azimjan our main concern was that his health was improving following the torture he had been subjected to. The sense then was that the Kyrgyz Government understood that it was wrong that he was in prison, that they accepted the trial had been unfair and that the charges against him were baseless. It seemed as though the issue was how to find a face-saving way to have him released. Over five years later Azimjan is today celebrating his 65th birthday in prison. On 21 April 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on the Kyrgyz Government to free the human rights defender on the basis that he was subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, and violations of his right to a fair trial. And yet the Kyrgyz Government seems to be paralysed.

Read the April 2016 UN Human Rights Committee Statement

Azimjan is one of the most respected human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan and is in prison because he exposed the brutality and persistent use of torture among the Kyrgyz police and in the country's prison system. As a result of the work of his organisation Vozdukh (Air) several police officers were dismissed and when he was sued because of an article he had written about torture in the prison system the court found in his favour.

When inter-ethnic violence broke out in 2010, leading to an estimated 400 deaths, Azimjan documented the violence and human rights abuses. Using the chaos as an opportunity to target Azimjan, Kyrgyz police arrested the human rights defender and charged him with having orchestrated ethnic hatred and murdering a policeman. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment despite the absence of any credible evidence against him and the fact that defence witnesses testified to the fact that he had been somewhere else at the time of the crime.

Everybody knows Azimjan is innocent of the crimes for which he was sentenced, including the President of Kyrgyzstan. Azimjan should be at home celebrating this significant birthday with his friends and family. Instead his children and grandchildren had to travel from Tashkent to visit him in prison.

Azimjan is a man of great dignity and courage and it is very sad that he remains in prison simply because politicians are scared to admit that the justice system failed him. It brings to mind the case of the Birmingham Six who were unjustly jailed in the UK. In 1980, Lord Denning upheld an appeal by the West Midlands Police against a civil action brought by the Birmingham Six for injuries they received in custody. He said in his judgement the consequence for the English legal system of accepting that police officers were lying was such "an appalling vista" that every sensible person would reject further legal action.

It is time for the Kyrgyz authorities to confront their appalling vista and free Azimjan. His continued imprisonment seriously damages the credibility of the Kyrgyz judicial system.