Angela Merkel, the first German Chancellor to make an official visit to Kyrgyzstan, arrives at a crucial time. Human rights activists, including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have urged her to press the case of Azimjon Askarov that presently dominates international coverage of the country (previous reports here and here).
Earlier this week the Kyrgyz Supreme Court opened a hearing regarding Askarov’s case. The 65-year old human rights advocate and journalist has been serving a life sentence following a conviction in 2010 that he’d participated in the murder of a policeman in southern Kyrgyzstan. In 2012, Askarov filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee that his rights to a fair trial had been violated and that he’d been subjected to torture. After more than three years of investigations the committee recommended that Kyrgyzstan immediate release Askarov.
The Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday grants Askarov a new appeal in the Chui regional court. His lawyers and other activists had hoped the Supreme Court would itself decide on the UN recommendation, which the country–per its constitution–is seemingly obligated to implement; but the court punted the decision to Chui, prolonging Askarov’s imprisonment.
A UN spokeswoman told The Diplomat, “The UN Human Rights Committee continues to follow Mr. Askarov’s case with great interest and expects that Kyrgyzstan will comply with the Committee’s call to quash the conviction against him and release him from jail.”
Askarov’s lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, suggested on Monday in court that the case has far reaching implications, particularly regarding the much-desired extradition of Maxim Bakiyev from the UK. The reputational cost of ignoring the UN’s recommendation may be high as Kyrgyzstan strives to define itself, vis-a-vis its neighbors in particular, as an open, rights-respecting, democratic state–and furthermore parley that status into increased aid.
Merkel’s visit was intended to highlight Germany’s support of Central Asia’s democratic star. Earlier this year German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a visit to Kyrgyzstan and said the country made an “exceedingly important contribution to guaranteeing stability in the region as a living, parliamentary democracy.” DW reported that Steinmeier “promised to deliver further funds in aid to help the country maintain a stable democracy.”
Merkel is expected to meet with her counterpart, President Almazbek Atambayev, a parliamentary delegation as well as civil society groups. Bilateral relations are on the table, along with the assortment of standard international issues. On July 14, the Merkel and Atambayev are expected to give a joint press conference. HRW and CPJ, as noted above, have both issued calls for Merkel to urge the Kyrgyz government to release Askarov.
“For a first-ever visit by a chancellor, that’s not a bad agenda,” concluded Hugh Williamson, director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia Division.
CPJ pointed to Merkel’s previous discussions with Atambayev–in Berlin in 2012 during the Kyrgyz president’s first official trip to the West–and urged her to “use all the resources available to your office, both within the German government and the OSCE chairmanship, to seek his immediate and unconditional release.”
As the burden shifts to the Chui regional court, which is reportedly to review the case based on the UN HRC’s decision, international pressure mounts on Bishkek.