It comes as little surprise that on May 13 the Kyrgyz Supreme Court upheld the life sentence of ethnic Uzbek human rights activist Azimjan Askarov. A decade ago, as a revolutionary spring fed into summer, violence flared in Kyrgyzstan’s south between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Askarov was among many Uzbeks arrested for taking part in the violence, though international observers argue that Uzbeks were more often the victims of the unrest.
In 2010, Askarov was convicted on charges that he instigated a mob that killed a police officer during the post-revolution interethnic violence. In the decade since, his case has been closely followed by international rights advocates. Askarov’s case illustrates several intersecting weaknesses and failures in the Kyrgyz justice system, from torture and unequal treatment of ethnic Uzbeks to free speech issues.
In 2002, Askarov founded Vozduh, a group aimed at monitoring the conditions of Kyrgyz prisons, which had been and continue to be routinely criticized for torture. Askarov, in that work, ran afoul of local law enforcement and his defenders have argued that sits at the root of his conviction in 2010.
Askarov’s case not only has domestic implications, but it also centers harsh international criticism on Kyrgyzstan. In 2015, for example, the U.S. State Department awarded Askarov a Human Rights Defender Award — triggering a not-insignificant blow-up in diplomatic relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States. While relations eventually got back on track, Askarov’s case again resurfaced as a foreign policy issue in 2016, when the UN Human Rights Committee weighed in on a petition Askarov’s defenders had submitted in 2012 claiming Kyrgyzstan had violated his rights.
The committee called on Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov immediately, having found that “he had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense.”
Bishkek, at the time led by President Almazbek Atambayev, did no such thing. Instead, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court reviewed Askarov’s case, then sent it for retrial. In early 2017, the Chui Regional Court in Bishkek once again found him guilty, upholding the 2010 verdict and life sentence. Meanwhile, a December 2016 referendum considering several constitutional changes sailed through. Among the changes was the removal of a clause in the Kyrgyz constitution that enabled Kyrgyz to seek redress for human rights violations in international bodies and obligated the Kyrgyz state to respect those decisions. The clause was billed by nationalists as the selling of the state’s sovereignty to international bodies.
This week, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court once again, likely for the last time, denied an appeal from Askarov.
Askarov turns 69 this month. It’s unclear what avenues remain open. Neither international pressure nor the Kyrgyz legal process, such as it is, have yielded his freedom; constitutional clauses have been altered and United Nations bodies ignored to keep him in jail. His supporters are even more concerned as the COVID-19 pandemic rages around the world, with prison populations at particular risk and Askarov reportedly already in poor health.
Mihra Rittmann of Human Rights Watch was recently allowed to interview Askarov. The interview was published today, giving Askarov a rare opportunity to speak from behind bars even as the court decided that’s where he’ll remain.
“Even though I am in prison, I feel the freedom of my soul,” he told her, speaking of the outpouring of support he has received and the faith and family that have sustained him.
“Faith in Allah gives me strength. My friends from far off lands never abandoned me to my fate, but continue to write [letters of support] to me and to my wife. I am infinitely grateful to them and wish them many years of life and good health. Allah willing, I will meet them when I am free. Thank you for having believed me then and for believing me now.”