Jailed Rights Activist Sours U.S.-Kyrgyz Relations

How did it all go so wrong?

A nasty row has broken out between the United States and Kyrgyzstan over Washington’s decision this month to bestow the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.

In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year.

Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.

The U.S. decision to grant Askarov with an award has enraged Kyrgyzstan, whose government reacted on July 17 with the announcement that it is to repeal a 1993 treaty between the two countries. 

The statement said that the award “did not ahere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to strengthen interethnic harmony.” The government also argued that U.S. actions were threatening peace and social stability in Kyrgyzstan.

As to Askarov’s guilt, Kyrgyzstan says they can be no doubt: “The decision of the court was taken on the basis of undeniable evidence, Askarov’s guilt has been proven in all instances. The Kyrgyz Republic stands for the supremacy of the law. The justice system is an independent branch of power.”

The most exhaustive account of the Askarov saga has been penned by journalist Philip Shishkin in the 2003 book, “Restless Valley; Revolution, Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia.” A lengthy excerpt published on Shishkin’s website this week allows for a more complex account than the Kyrgyz government is willing to allow for.

It is not immediately clear how the revocation of one of the founding treaties in Kyrgyz-U.S. relations could play out in real terms, but the document makes for ominous reading.

The treaty provides for a tariff waiver on goods imported into Kyrgyzstan as part of U.S. aid programs. It also exempts non-Kyrgyz employees of U.S. government or private aid programs from income and social security taxes.

While hardly damaging U.S. interests, the move stands to hurt anybody benefiting from Washington-funded aid programs. That might have potential to dent U.S. standing among the broader population, if the combination of smear campaigns and lurid conspiracy theories in Russian and Kyrgyz media had not achieved that aim already. 

Advocacy groups have long lambasted the West, and the United States in particular, for taking a weak stand on rights issues in Central Asia. As many have argued, Washington has appeared willing to temper criticism as long as those countries could be of assistance in U.S.-led NATO military campaign in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan’s strategic value to the United States has all but vanished, however, since Bishkek decided to close the Manas military air transit center outside Bishkek in June 2014.

Washington is taking unusally bold stances elsewhere in the region, too.

U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, Pamela Spratlen, may have ruffled some feathers in Tashkent in June by pointedly meeting with that country’s most outspoken human rights champion, Elena Urlaeva. While hailing Urlaeva’s tireless advocacy work, the embassy discreetly avoided mentioning the episode that precipitated the meeting: a harrowing catalogue of abuse that Urlaeva says was recently meted out to her by police.

Still, these isolated cases may be too little to prompt talk of a major sea change in how the U.S. balances its security interests and humanitarian agenda.

Along with the usual humanitarian assistance, the U.S. embassy in Tajikistan has been busy supporting Tajik law enforcement officials with material and training. All the while, Tajikistan has been intensifying its campaign of repression against the opposition.

Jailed Rights Activist Sours U.S.-Kyrgyz Relations

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