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16 January 2017

Kyrgyz Authorities Must Free Azimjan Askarov on Humanitarian Grounds

A Kyrgyz court is due to issue a verdict in the case of Azimjan Askarov, a prominent human rights defender, on Tuesday, 24 January.

Azimjan Askarov was arrested in June 2010 while Kyrgyzstan was experiencing violent confrontations in the south of the country. He was charged with complicity in the murder of a policeman, as well as inciting violence and mass disorder, despite the absence of any credible evidence against him and the widespread view that these charges were fabricated to target the human rights defender who had documented rights abuses and corruption for years. Even the national Ombudsman at the time determined that the charges against him were politically motivated.

The Kyrgyz government has been targeting the defender for a long time on the basis of his human rights work. Azimjan Askarov’s investigations exposing brutality and the persistent use of torture among the Kyrgyz police and in the country's prison system resulted in the dismissal of several police officers. He also documented corruption in the judicial system.

But Azimjan Askarov himself has experienced the very brutality of the Kyrgyz prison system that he had worked so hard to expose.

In September 2010, Azimjan Askarov was sentenced to life in prison on trumped up charges. Clear evidence exists that the human rights defender was subjected to torture and suffered from ill-treatment while in pretrial detention. He was repeatedly beaten during the first days of detention, denied access to his lawyer, interrogated and humiliated.

The combination of the ill-treatment and the lack of proper medical attention has had a severe impact on the defender’s health. When Masha Chichtchenkova, Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, attended Azimjan Askarov’s hearing on 3 October 2016, she noted that the defender’s health had deteriorated even further. He had lost a lot of weight and had difficulty walking.

Ever since his detention, Azimjan Askarov’s trial has been marred with multiple violations and procedural flaws. 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 had been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, and violations of his right to a fair trial. In July 2016, a trial observation conducted by an independent legal expert confirmed the absence of any credible evidence against Azimjan Askarov. Relatives of the deceased policeman verbally assaulted the defender’s lawyers, including death threats and physical attacks in the courtroom. Such violations, along with threats on social media against the defender’s lawyer, prevented his lawyer from being able to mount a proper defence.

Of the numerous violations recorded during Azimjan Askarov’s trial, many violate the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party.

In a statement on 8 January, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic Erlan Abdyldaev highlighted Kyrgyzstan’s wish to integrate into the community of democratic states, strengthen comprehensive partnership with the European Union and focus on “European values.” However, Kyrgyzstan’s blatant disregard for human rights and failure to comply with international fair trial standards undermines the sincerity of that ambition.

"The treatment of Azimjan Askarov has become a test case for the credibility of the Kyrgyz judicial system and Government," said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director at Front Line Defenders. "To keep him in jail in spite of the torture and absence of evidence makes a mockery of their pretence to uphold the rule of law."

Front Line Defenders urges the Kyrgyz authorities to free Azimjan Askarov on humanitarian grounds, as several European states have already expressed their willingness to grant the defender asylum. Any other outcome, even a shorter prison term, will mean a virtual death sentence for the sixty-seven year old human rights defender.