Any hope that authorities in Kyrgyzstan might show leniency toward jailed activist Azimjan Askarov was squashed on January 24, when a court reinstated his life sentence. Rights advocates expressed dismay at the verdict, calling it a violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international commitments.
Standing in the defendant’s cage in a hall in the Chui regional court, Askarov vowed that he would mount an open-ended hunger strike.
Askarov, a 66-year old ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2010 on charges of inciting a crowd to murder a police officer during inter-communal riots in the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Bazar-Korgon in June that year. Askarov’s supporters, who include several Western governments and rights groups, have long argued the case against the activist was flimsy, and his original trial was marred by procedural violations.
A judicial review was instigated at the behest of the UN Human Rights Committee, which issued a complaint last year on the basis of allegations that Askarov had been subject to mistreatment and torture in prison. Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court in July voided the original conviction and ordered a legal review, but declined to release the ailing Askarov from custody as explicitly requested by the UN committee.
In its ruling to reinstate Askarov’s sentence, the judicial board at the Chui regional court maintained that allegations of abuse against Askarov were not credible. “The judicial board doubts the veracity of Askarov’s words about him being tortured, given that three state psychiatrists concluded that Askarov was ‘dishonest and obsequious.’ His lawyers produced no witnesses or evidence regarding this case,” Judge Kydyk Dzhunushpayev said.
Askarov can appeal this decision once again at the Supreme Court, although the activist has shown clear signs of being at the end of his wits. His lawyers have repeatedly said he is ailing physically. Askarov pleaded with the court during hearings to be given a lie detector test. In the event of the test finding his protestations of innocence to be false, the authorities could administer a death sentence, Askarov said.
Kyrgyzstan abolished the death penalty in 2007.
In its statement last year, the UN Human Rights Committee cited 18 international experts as saying that Kyrgyzstan grossly flouted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in its treatment of Askarov. It said the activist was denied the right to properly prepare for his trial, and criticized the manner of his initial detention. Members of the committee also asserted independent medical examinations indicated that Askarov had been subjected to torture.
The 24.kg news agency cited rights activist Dinara Oshurakhunova, who attended the recent trial, as calling the verdict a danger to all citizens of Kyrgyzstan. “Non-compliance with decision of the UN Committee on Human Rights is a threat not to Kyrgyzstan, but to its citizens,” Oshurakhunova said.
Particular dismay was aroused by what rights activists said was the undue period of time taken by the Chui court to reach its decision — two weeks after the closing arguments. “It has never happened before in Kyrgyzstan that judges retire to the deliberation room for two weeks. Supposedly, they have been in conference this entire time. The president and parliament say that in this country there is an independence judicial system, but today’s verdict says otherwise. The decision of this court is a terrible verdict not just for Askarov but for the citizens of this country,” Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Bir Duino human rights organization, was quoted as saying by Zanoza.kg.
Oshurakhunova told Moscow-based Fergananews.com that the time had come for the international community to institute a list of Kyrgyz officials akin to the Magnitsky List of Russian officials sanctioned by the United States. “This list should include the surnames of some politicians, many prosecutors, police officers and law enforcement employees that tortured [Askarov] and judges that took these decisions,” Oshurakhunova told Fergananews.com.
Askarov’s supporters had nursed some hope that the appeal might go his way. Details emerged during the recent court proceedings that witnesses in the 2010 trial had given their testimony under duress.
Speaking in November, Minura Mamadalieva, who was also Askarov’s co-defendant at the initial trial following ethnic unrest in 2010, said she only agreed to provide an incriminating testimony after she and her six-year-old son were subjected to mistreatment by the police. Contradicting her earlier testimony, Mamadalieva told the court that she had not seen Askarov in the run-up to the death of the police officer in Bazar-Korgon.
“I was not there. They made me sign up to all this,” she told the court. “They said they would put my child behind bars. The police beat us, the detainees. They almost made us eat dirt. Including Askarov. This is the kind of unbridled behavior the Bazar-Korgon police station was getting up to.”
Accounts from police witnesses also appeared to change over the years.
Oshurakhunova said the failure of the appeal process served as additional proof of the politicized nature of the case.
“I got some hope when new information was voiced out about those policemen who previously gave testimonies [against Askarov], that they confused their testimonies. We thought the court would take this into consideration, and reach a compromise decision, but they left the life sentence in force. It turned out that we were coming to the hearings and cherishing hopes, but that this was just a show,” she said.
Askarov’s chances of release have been routinely undermined by the political sensitivities surrounding the case. Mindful of the nationalistic impulse that runs strong among a large segment of the Kyrgyz electorate, President Almazbek Atambayev has bristled at international criticism over Askarov, whom he has described as a “murderer.”
Anna Lelik is a Bishkek-based reporter.