With banners flying and policemen guarding the city’s main avenues, Bishkek is getting ready to inaugurate its first democratically elected president, Almazbek Atambayev, on December 1. But hopes for democratic justice are fading for one of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent human rights defenders.
On November 29, the Supreme Court appeal of Azimjan Askarov and his co-defendants was delayed until December 20 when several lawyers for the accused failed to appear in court. The lawyers say the court purposefully informed them of the hearing too late.
Askarov, once a brave critic of police brutality, was convicted in September 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment for organizing other ethnic Uzbeks in attacks that killed a police officer in Bazar-Korgon, just outside Jalal-Abad, during the June 2010 ethnic violence.
The proceedings were punctuated by physical and verbal attacks by family members of the slain police officer on Askarov, the other defendants, and his lawyer. Throughout the extended appeals process the family has kept up the pressure, often with the overt support of local authorities. After one appeal in November 2010, local police officers reportedly joined family members in beating the defendants in a courthouse corridor.
Human rights organizations, which declared the charges and trial a farce, had called on outgoing President Roza Otunbayeva to ensure the integrity of the appeal and Askarov’s physical safety.
Rumors of a possible presidential pardon from Otunbayeva, presumably after the Supreme Court had upheld the conviction, had also circulated recently. The delay therefore looks suspiciously like a means to let Kyrgyzstan’s most famous and outspoken advocate of democracy off the hook for what would have been an unpopular decision domestically. As the Committee to Protect Journalists has noted, when it comes to Askarov, Otunbayeva the reformer has been consistently unwilling to put her money where her mouth is.
The case is a crucial bellwether for Kyrgyzstan. Since “the June events,” as they are called here, southern Uzbeks have been consistently singled out by police and threatened with arrest, then beaten and extorted for cash in exchange for freedom. A number of those targeted have died of their wounds.
If a prominent activist like Askarov cannot receive justice, there seems little chance average citizens will be able to get fair hearings.
For all of the deserved congratulation over Central Asia’s first peaceful exchange of presidential power, impunity continues to rot the state -- and Otunbayeva's legacy -- from within.