Security was tight in Kyrgyzstan’s capital on July 11 as the Supreme Court began its review into the criminal conviction of an ethnic Uzbek rights activist jailed in 2010.
Clusters of police officers stood at intervals of 10 yards around the building as authorities sought to ensure the hearing was not interrupted by public unrest. Few members of the public seemed to be aware of what was going on, however.
The hearing on Azimjan Askarov’s case is being held at the behest of the UN Human Rights Committee, which in April pressed Kyrgyzstan to release the rights activist.
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 amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June that year. Askarov denies all charges. His supporters say he was singled out for arrest and prosecution because of his advocacy work highlighting police abuse.
Observers attending the hearing, who included reporters, representatives of European diplomatic missions and local and international human rights activists, had to pass through several stages of security screening before being allowed into the big, light courtroom. An English-speaking interpreter was made available by the court to assist foreigners in attendance.
The UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds for Askarov to appeal for reconsideration of a final and non-appealable decision of the Supreme Court under Article 41 of Kyrgyz Constitution and request revision of his case.
Proceedings started shortly after 10 a.m., around half an hour later than planned. Chief justice Kakchekei Esenkanov explained that the court was waiting for representatives of Askarov’s alleged victims.
The defense team petitioned the court to acknowledge human rights activist and leader of Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan movement, Tolekan Ismailova, as a public defender acting for Askarov. Although there had been widespread hope that Askarov himself would attend the hearing, the judge declined a lawyers’ request for the activist to appear.
The language at the hearing was a mix of Kyrgyz and Russian. Askarov’s charges were read out in Kyrgyz.
But the defense team — Nurbek Toktakunov and Valerian Vakhitov — spoke in Russian.
Toktakunov, who acted for Askarov shortly after the initial arrest, argued that previous trials had been marked by multiple violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including through arbitrary detention, inhumane conditions in detention facilities, prevention of contact with lawyers and obtaining evidence through torture.
“Kyrgyzstan has to restore Askarov’s rights, which have been violated. It must release him immediately and pay him compensation, as well as take measures to prevent such violations in the future,” Toktakunov argued.
The UN involvement in this case could prove decisive.
Toktakunov brought up the issue of Kyrgyzstan’s long-standing legal campaign to secure the extradition of Maxim Bakiyev, the son of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The younger Bakiyev, who lives in England, faces multiple charges of corruption, fraud and money laundering.
“We all want to bring Maxim Bakiyev back to Kyrgyzstan to stand trial, but if the UN Committee’s decision is not fulfilled, they won’t even discuss it with us. It is a legal norm to decline extradition of people to countries where torture take place and where UN Committee decisions are ignored,” Toktakunov said.
Ismailova spoke about the severe deterioration of Askarov’s health. He is suffering from worsening eyesight, heart and kidneys problems.
Esenkanov summoned a recess until the afternoon, citing the need for the alleged victims’ relatives to finally arrive. The delegation did not come to the court, however, so the hearing was put off to the next day.
This new hearing is taking place just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to visit, on July 13-14.
The International Committee to Protect Journalists urged Merkel to use her visit to secure Askarov’s release.
“We ask that you use all the resources available to your office, both within the German government and the [Organization for Security and Cooperation Organization] chairmanship, to seek his immediate and unconditional release”, CPJ said in a statement.
Atambayev’s administration has insisted that there is no link between Merkel’s visit and the Askarov case.