Prominent Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was serving a life sentence, has died in prison in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said on Saturday. He was 69.
Askarov was imprisoned after an unfair trial on politically motivated charges, for which he was arbitrarily arrested and tortured.
Human Rights Watch said Askarov’s death in state custody is a violation of his right to life, for which Kyrgyzstan’s authorities are wholly responsible and have to be held accountable.
Askarov’s health had deteriorated significantly during his imprisonment, and he fell more severely ill in the days before his death.
“Kyrgyzstan’s authorities bear full responsibility for Askarov’s death,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“They had every opportunity to end his wrongful imprisonment, but each time they flouted their obligations. They intended for him to die in prison, and so he has.”
Askarov was the director of Air, a human rights organisation in southern Kyrgyzstan focused on documenting prison conditions and police treatment of detainees.
His ordeal started when he documented violence and looting in his home town of Bazar-Korgon during the deadly inter-ethnic violence that started in southern Kyrgyzstan on June 10, 2010. Several days later, police arrested Askarov on charges related to the killing of a police officer in Bazar Kurgon during the mayhem.
Askarov’s trial was marred by multiple incidents of violence and procedural violations. The courts repeatedly refused to investigate Askarov’s credible allegations of torture in detention.
On September 15, 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was upheld on appeal that December.
Since 2016, Kyrgyz authorities have defied a United Nations Human Rights Committee ruling to immediately release Askarov and quash his conviction. The committee had found that Askarov was arbitrarily detained, tortured in custody, and denied a fair trial.
The committee’s decision served as grounds for the Kyrgyz courts to re-try the case, but they upheld his life sentence. In his final appeal, in May 2020, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court again upheld the sentence.
Kyrgyz authorities chose not to release Askarov on medical and humanitarian grounds, despite his cardiac and respiratory problems and the added risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kyrgyz authorities also rejected numerous diplomatic efforts, including by the European Union and its member states, and by the US administration over the years to have Askarov freed.
Askarov’s lawyer, Valeryan Vakhitov, told Human Rights Watch that when he visited Askarov in prison on July 22, his health had deteriorated in the previous 10 days.
On July 24, prison authorities transferred him to a different prison with better medical facilities, where he died. Vakhitov has requested the authorities to provide him with an official report on the cause of death.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Askarov’s wife had been unable to visit him in recent months and he died without any family to comfort him.
Vakhitov told Human Rights Watch that he had passed on the organisation’s greetings to him and told him that he was not forgotten, and that people across the world were still fighting for him. (Source: HRW)