Six years after being handed a life sentence for the murder of a policeman during the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that followed the second revolution, Azimjon Askarov appeared in a Bishkek court for the start of his retrial.
The Askarov case is a flashpoint for Kyrgyzstani politics, dredging up subjects many in Bishkek prefer buried and shining a critical light on the state long referred to as the “island of democracy” in Central Asia. At hand are issues of sovereignty and international commitments, accusations of torture and a system rigged to persecute Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic Uzbek minority, and the problems of politics and pride.
The 2015 granting of a human rights defender award to Askarov by the U.S. State Department led to the scrapping of a 1993 cooperating treaty, an illustration of both how angry the Kyrgyz government was and how sensitive the subject is. Askarov is a prominent ethnic Uzbek activist whose work investigating police abuse and monitoring prison conditions put him at odds with the state’s security services. His conviction for the murder of a policeman in 2010 was viewed by many rights activists in part as retaliation for his work.
The April 2016 decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee that Askarov’s human rights had been violated and the body’s call for the quashing of his conviction and immediate release led to series of divergent outcomes.
The Askarov case added kindling to President Almazbek Atambayev’s burning desire to amend the constitution, despite a prohibition on doing so before 2020. Among the changes Atambayev hopes to push through via referendum in December is the deletion of the final sentence of Article 41, paragraph 2, which stipulates that should an international human rights body find that a Kyrgyz citizen has had their rights violated, the state “shall take measures to their restoration and/or compensation of damage.” This clause was put in to protect Kyrgyz citizens from the kind of predatory governments they had overthrown twice. But some, like Atambayev, see the clause as a selling of Kyrgyz sovereignty to international institutions.
While Kyrgyzstan has not met the committee’s call for Askarov’s release, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court did decide that Askarov would get a new trial. That trial began October 4 at the Chui regional court in Bishkek. While media were not permitted to broadcast live video of the proceedings, the trial was open and attended by media and international observers. In this, Kyrgyzstan is distinguished from its neighbors, where closed-door trials are the norm for cases of this caliber, and a retrial of this sort virtually unimaginable.
Askarov’s lawyers – Valerian Vakhitov, Nurbek Toktakunov, and Aydar Sadykov – called on the court to release the ethnic Uzbek activist, implementing the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision. The lawyers asked that the case, the murder of policeman Myktybek Sulaimanov, be investigated further. The original investigation took place during the turbulent time following the second Kyrgyz revolution. Blame for the subsequent violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, in which Uzbek communities were the primary victims, fell most firmly on those same communities. Askarov’s lawyers referred to the investigation as “clumsy” and “one-sided.”
According to a live blog of the trial by Kloop, Sulaimanov’s widow interrupted the proceedings with several outbursts, calling Askarov a killer and a liar.
After initial arguments, the court declined to release Askarov and proceeded to hear testimony. Askarov declared his innocence and said he was not at the scene when the policeman was killed. He has long maintained that he was documenting the violence targeting the Uzbek community in Osh in 2010.
According to the state’s version of what happened, during the riots in Osh a group of 15 people took one of the city’s bridges and threw rocks at police who arrived. When the police moved off, Sulaimanov was grabbed by the mob, beaten, and set on fire; other accounts also say he was shot, another layer to the confusion about what actually happened.
Askarov is accused of being the mob’s leader and the policemen that testified fingered him as shouting something to the effect of “kill the Kyrgyz.” One policeman said he heard Askarov at a distance of 30 meters (nearly 100 feet), and another said 100 meters (328 feet) – none of them could recall what he was wearing, though all swore he was there.
The court will reconvene on October 11 for additional hearings.
The case is being followed closely by human rights groups, which profess Askarov’s innocence and have urged Bishkek to make good on both its own constitution and its international commitments.