Kyrgyzstan: Journalists life-sentence upheld on trumped-up charges
1 February 2017 – PEN International condemns the decision of the Chui Regional Court in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to uphold on appeal the life sentence of journalist Azimjon Askarov on charges of complicity in murder and inciting hatred for reporting on fatal ethnic violence in June 2010.
PEN believes that Askarov was targeted solely for his critical reporting of police corruption and that he should be released immediately and unconditionally.
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Please send appeals:
- Calling for the immediate release of journalist and human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, for his conviction to be overturned, and for his allegations of torture to be thoroughly and impartially investigated;
• Calling for anyone found responsible for violating Askarov’s rights to be brought to justice and for Askarov to be provided with adequate redress for any such violations, including an enforceable right to compensation for any torture he is found to have been subjected to.
President of Kyrgyzstan
His Excellency Almazbek Atambayev
Office of the President
Chuy Avenue 205
Republic of Kyrgyzstan
Prosecutor General of Kyrgyzstan
139 Toktonalieva Street
Write to Azimjon Askarov in prison. His friends and family say that messages of support provide great comfort and inspiration:
720755, Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek city,
91 Malikova Street,
Penal colony #47
720755, Кыргызская Республика, г. Бишкек,
ул. Маликова 91,
Исправительная колония № 47
Please send a letter via your local Kyrgyz embassy here.
Azimjon Askarov is a journalist and member of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority who has spent his career exposing corruption. He was arrested during the inter-ethnic conflict that swept Osh and Jalal-Abad in June 2010 and convicted, on 15 September 2010, of organising mass disorder and complicity in the murder of a police officer; he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and other independent observers have declared that Askarov did not receive a fair trial. An official investigation commissioned by the government’s own human rights ombudsman concluded that Askarov was not even at the scene prior to the police officer’s murder and, therefore, that he had played no role in the killing.
Askarov, born in 1951, has not always been a journalist. A practical, creative man, he studied art at university and, for the first 15 years of his adult life, worked as a house painter and decorator. He only turned to journalism in the mid-90s, contributing to the regional news websites Golos Svobody (Voice of Freedom) and the Ferghana News Agency. He quickly made himself unpopular with the authorities by exposing local corruption; his investigations into police involvement in criminal activity reportedly led to ten police officers losing their jobs.
Askarov maintains that he took no part in the clashes of 2010, and that he spent most of his time documenting it; he took photographs of victims (both Kyrgyz and Uzbek), made extensive notes and went to the local morgue to identify bodies. He also wrote that he witnessed Kyrgyz police officers shooting ethnic Uzbeks.
The evidence against Askarov is widely considered by human rights NGOs to be fabricated. Since his arrest, Askarov has repeatedly complained of being beaten and threatened, including during his trial; these claims are supported by independent witnesses. An examination carried out in January 2012 by the international NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) concluded not only that Askarov’s health had deteriorated, but that he showed clinical evidence of traumatic brain injury consistent with his claims of being tortured. In November 2012, the journalist’s lawyer submitted a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee.
Based on credible evidence that Askarov was tortured and that he received an unfair trial, his supporters have made many attempts to re-open the investigation into his case. On 30 April 2014, Askarov’s lawyer convinced the Oktyabrsky District Court in Bishkek to re-open the investigation. However, this decision was overturned on 12 June 2014 when the Bishkek City Court rejected the lower court’s ruling. His lawyer then appealed to the Supreme Court, which, on 3 September 2014, rejected the journalist’s appeal for a review of his case.
In March 2016 the UN Human Rights Committee found that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, tortured, mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his defence as well as being denied treatment for serious medical conditions. A number of the defence witnesses also told the court that they had been intimidated and threatened during the course of the first trial and there were serious failures in the investigation against him
Some journalists and human rights defenders believe that the authorities are reluctant to re-open Askarov’s case simply because he has too much information implicating police officers and politicians in the violence of 2010; others suggest that President Atambayev fears that releasing the Uzbek journalist might spark Kyrygz violence in the south of the country. Both international and domestic NGOs risk harassment if they campaign on Askarov’s behalf.
Askarov was an honorary ‘Empty Chair’ at PEN’s 2014 international congress in Bishkek, where his wife, Hadicha Askarova, made a moving personal appeal to PEN delegates. During the congress, PEN delegations raised Askarov’s case directly in private meetings with both President Atambayev and the General Prosecutor, Aida Salyanova.
In 2011, Askarov won People In Need’s Homo Homini Award, “in recognition of a dedication to the promotion of human rights, democracy and non-violent solutions to political conflicts.” In 2012, he was the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. Askarov is an Honorary Member of PEN Canada and recipient of their 2016 One Humanity award.