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Azimjon Askarov: A profile (Demo)

He was the only person fighting against corruption in our law enforcement … to the police, he was public enemy number one.

Askarov’s editor, Abdumomun Mamaraimov

The campaigning journalist and human rights advocate, Azimjon Askarov, is Kyrgyzstan’s most famous prisoner; he is also a victim of the judicial corruption that he investigates. In September 2010, despite a paucity of evidence against him, Askarov was convicted of incitement to ethnic hatred, organising mass disorder, and complicity in a police officer’s murder. He was handed a life sentence.

Askarov, 63, is a member of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek ethnic minority. Originally a painter and decorator, he began investigating and writing about judicial corruption and human rights abuses in southern Kyrgyzstan in the mid-90s. He quickly found that his hatred of injustice was matched by his nose for a good story, and his reports for the regional news websites Voice of Freedom and Ferghana News created quite a stir; they also made him many enemies among the local authorities.

Abdumomun Mamaraimov, editor-in-chief of Voice of Freedom, says of the journalist: “He was the only person fighting against corruption in our law enforcement; he uncovered at least five killings by police officers. He published this information independently or passed it on to Voice of Freedom. I know that at least one prosecutor and 10 police officers were fired because of Askarov’s reports; to the police, he was public enemy number one.”

Askarov was arrested during the explosion of inter-ethnic violence that swept Southern Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2010. Tension between the (majority) Kyrgyz and the (minority) Uzbek ethnic groups in southern Kyrgyzstan was already heightened, but no-one could have guessed that a brawl at a casino between members of these two groups in June would ignite the orgy of looting and savagery that enveloped the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad that summer, leaving between 450 and 500 people dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The violence exposed the anti-Uzbek sentiment that is so prevalent in all areas of the Kyrgyz justice system: the majority of those killed, robbed or injured were ethnic Uzbeks; the majority of those detained, charged and convicted were also ethnic Uzbeks. There were reports that soldiers and police officers (the police force is almost entirely ethnic Kyrgyz), armed Kyrgyz rioters and took an active part in the attacks on Uzbeks themselves.

Throughout the disturbances, Askarov worked almost non-stop, documenting killings, robberies and arson. On 13 June 2010, while attending the scene of the murder of a policeman, Askarov witnessed officers firing live rounds into an ethnic Uzbek crowd; he took photographs and visited the local morgue to identify bodies. In the days that followed, he interviewed the wounded at the local hospital and shared information with journalists and human rights defenders.

In such a tense, lethal atmosphere, Askarov – an ethnic Uzbek who exposed police corruption – was doubly at risk.

Askarov was arrested on 15 June 2010. At first, the police wanted his help in building criminal cases against leaders of the local Uzbek community and demanded that he hand over his camera and reporting materials. He refused, and was subjected to a series of vicious beatings that went on for days. During that time he was charged with complicity in the murder of a police officer and various other state crimes.

His trial was swift and marked by further violence; police officers beat him and his co-defendants in the courtroom. His conviction was widely condemned by human rights organisations, inter-governmental bodies and other independent observers; campaigns of public and private advocacy began.

Askarov’s trial was declared unfair by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and ‘politically motivated’ by the Kyrgyz Human Rights Ombudsman (who also highlighted the lack of evidence against the journalist). In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture visited Askarov in jail and expressed concern about the denial of justice to the journalist. In the same year, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), following an examination of Askarov’s medical records, concluded that Askarov showed clinical evidence of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder that were consistent with being tortured in custody. On 31 March 2016, the UN’s Human Rights Committee found that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and prevented from preparing a trial defence; the Committee called for his conviction to be quashed and for Askarov to be released.

In July 2016, the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court overturned a 2011 decision to deny him the right to appeal the life sentence, and an appeal hearing was opened before the Chui Regional Court the following October. Hopes were raised that the years of advocacy on Askarov’s behalf by human rights organisations, governments and international bodies would have some effect. But these were dashed when on 24 January 2017 the court upheld Askarov’s life sentence, despite evidence from a co-defendant that she had been coerced to testify against Askarov, and from his lawyer who described receiving death threats for defending his client. Askarov also testified that he had been beaten, subjected to humiliation and death threats when in police detention in 2010. The panel of judges presiding over the case dismissed his claims, calling him a ‘liar’.

In a 25 January 2017 statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called the upholding of the sentence “deeply troubling and highlights serious shortcomings in the country’s judicial system”, adding that it was “truly unfortunate” that the court did not pursue allegations that Askarov had been tortured.

On 13 May 2020, the Supreme Court upheld Askarov’s life sentence at his final appeal. He will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

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