Kyrgyzstan: State's Case on Askarov Crumbling Under Scrutiny
A court in Kyrgyzstan’s Chui region held a hearing on October 4 on whether the case of jailed activist Azimjan Askarov should be reopened for fresh investigations.
Once again defying the demands of a UN Human Rights Committee, the court rejected pleas to release Askarov from custody pending further developments.
Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was given a life sentence in September 2010 after being found guilty of inciting a crowd to murder police officers on June 13 that year during deadly inter-communal riots in the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Bazar-Korgon. He has always steadfastly maintained his innocence and pleaded in court to be subjected to a lie detector examination.
The case has grown increasingly toxic over the years and has placed authorities in the impossible position of having to either placate the international community — much of which has argued Askarov was unjustly jailed in a marred trail — or risk stirring the ire of ferociously nationalistic sections of the population.
As in all previous court procedures involving the Askarov case, relatives and colleagues of a policeman purportedly killed at the activist’s instigation were present, angrily raising objections at numerous stages. Askarov too was present in the court, looking weary and sporting a white beard.
In his opening argument, a lawyer for Askarov, Nurbek Toktakunov, said the court should abide by a UN Human Rights Committee request for Askarov to be released. The committee argued in April that Kyrgyzstan had grossly flouted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in its treatment of Askarov and said the activist was denied the right to properly prepare for his trial and criticized the manner of his initial detention.
“The collegium of Chui regional court has a superb opportunity to fulfill the decision of he UN committee and let Askarov,” Toktakunov said.
That plea was rejected by the court after the judges retired for a lengthy deliberation 40 minutes into the hearing.
On the point of the alleged crime itself, Askarov’s defense team argued that there were other culprits and that many details remained to be clarified. Toktakunov said the investigation was marred by shortcomings and demanded a fresh approach to the case. A “superficial” and “one-sided” investigation have allowed the policeman’s real killers to remain free, the lawyer said.
Chinara Bechelova, the wife of one of the killed police officers, Myktybek Sulaimanov, shouted angrily at the lawyer as he spoke.
After the recess, Askarov was given an opportunity to speak.
“After my arrest, [former general prosecutor] Azimbek Beknazarov said that he saw a video in which he could see a crowd being led by Azimjan Askarov. Seven years have passed, and to this day the authorities have been unable to produce this footage. I demand that all witnesses be checked on lie detectors. I was not in the place where this incident happened. I swear to God, I swear on my children that I am not guilt,” he said.
The court ruled that if the video material did exist, it should be included among the case materials.
A matter of contention regards the circumstances of Sulaimanov’s killing. The state’s account has always been that a group of people — ethnic Uzbeks — occupied a bridge in the Bazar-Korgon in the heat of the unrest. When police arrived, they were pelted with rocks, according to prosecutors. They say that the police officers fled the scene, but that Sulaimanov was caught up in the melee and was beaten, had petrol poured all over him and was then set alight.
Everything else is a mix of confusing details.
Sulaimanov’s own sister, among many others, claim to have seen evidence of gunshot wounds on the body. Prosecutors maintain there were only stab wounds and there was no evidence of any shooting. Investigators claim not to have taken any photos of Sulaimanov’s body.
It has also long been stated that it took the police at least two hours to locate Sulaimanov after his killing. Prosecutors now assert that he was found on the bridge, at the same spot where he was murdered. Again no pictures were taken of the location.
Bechelova recounted to the court how she had learned about her husband’s death.
“At 10 o’clock they told us that that Myky [Sulaimanov] had been shot. We thought that he was in hospital. We went to the police station and in the street we saw an ambulance. They opened it up, and there was my dead husband. They burned him, you could see it from his T-shirt,” she said.
With the passage of time, sifting factual recollection from hearsay is proving a major stumbling block to reaching an accurate picture of events. Asked if she had heard of Askarov before the June 2010 riots, Bechelova said that she had not, but that she had “heard that he organized everything.”
Pressed by Toktakunov about who had informed her Askarov was the guilty party, Bechelova said “somebody told her during the trial” but that she could not remember who it was.
Next to give testimony was Mamyrzhan Mergentaev, a police commander in the Jalal-Abad region at the time of the unrest.
Mergentaev said that when his officers went to the bridge in Bazar-Korgon they found a group of men armed with sticks, metal rods and shovels.
“‘Kill the head of police, he’s for the Kyrgyz.’ Somebody said that on the bridge. But I cannot remember exactly who it was, but it was said,” Mergentaev said.
Asked if he had seen Askarov, Mergentaev said he had not because there were many people in the crowd. The decision to arrest Askarov followed a tip-off that the activist was present, he said.
But another policeman questioned in court, Emilbek Mantybayev, claimed he did see Askarov while trying to calm down the crowd on the bridge, although only from a distance of around 100 and 150 meters.
“There were about 500-1,000 people there. They were armed with stones, I guess. I saw it personally. I saw Askarov with my own eyes. He is a good speaker. He could put people up to that. He said something about how all Kyrgyz were asses. He also said that they should kill all Kyrgyz policemen,” Mantybayev told the court.
Asked if he could recall how Askarov was dressed, Mantybayev was unable to answer, but said he knew the activist from before the unrest. That last detail was almost certainly accurate as Askarov’s activities highlighting police abuses had made him an object of hate for local law enforcement officials.
In his cross-questioning of Mantybayev, Askarov poured scorn on the testimony.
“In 2010, a criminal case was filed against, and so now you have decided to get your revenge on me. Right now, you are standing about seven meters away from the prosecutor and you cannot hear what he is saying. How is it then that you could hear from 150 meters away?” Askarov asked.
Another Bazar-Korgon policeman summoned to the witness box, Emilbek Salymbayev, offered similar details to Mantybayev, although he claims to have been standing closer to Askarov.
“What exactly did he say?” the prosecutor asked.
“‘Kill the Kyrgyz.’ Something like that,” Salymbayev said.
Askarov’s defense lawyer then asked Salymbayev how he could be so certain.
“I saw it. I was standing just 30 meters away,” he said.
The other lingering mystery is why it took the police three whole days to apprehend Askarov is they had direct eyewitness corroboration of his involvement in the crowd trouble. Mergentaev, the Jalal-Abad police commander, claimed to have received a tip-off, while his colleagues insist they themselves were material witnesses.
Another of Askarov’s lawyers, Aidar Sydykov, questioned Salymbayev on why it took police so long to make an arrest.
“How did you apprehend Askarov? You said that he had incited people to kill. Why did you do nothing for three days? You saw that Sulaimanov had been killed, hadn’t you? Why did you not tell the relatives it was Askarov that had done it?” Sadykov asked.
“I don’t remember. But we did do searches,” Salymbayev said.
The pattern of misremembering and claiming implausible knowledge about some details and professing ignorance about others was observed with several of the prosecution’s witnesses.
After several hours of testimonies, the judges adjourned the hearing to October 11.