International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) deeply regrets the failure to ensure justice for human rights defender Azimjan Askarov in Kyrgyzstan. At the retrial against the defender that ended today, the court upheld his conviction on all counts and his life sentence, which was handed down following a flawed 2010 investigation and trial.
“It is extremely disturbing that the court failed to use this retrial as an opportunity to rectify the earlier miscarriage of justice in Azimjan Askarov’s case,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director. She continued: “It is now crucial that the international community continues to insist on justice for Askarov, in accordance with the conclusions of the UN Human Rights Committee in his case.”
An ethnic Uzbek, Azimjan Askarov was arrested in June 2010 for his alleged involvement in events that resulted in the death of a police officer during the inter-ethnic violence that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan that month. In September 2010, he was found guilty on numerous charges, including participation in mass disturbances, incitement of ethnic hatred, and complicity in murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In a decision adopted in March 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied fair trial rights. It requested that he be immediately released, his conviction quashed and, if necessary, that a new trial be held subject to the principles of a fair trial, presumption of innocence and other procedural safeguards. Following this decision, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court reviewed the case. However, it failed to release Askarov and repeal his conviction and instead sent the case back for retrial at the appeals level. The retrial began at Chui Regional Court on 4 October 2016, with Askarov’s conviction by a local court still standing.
At the beginning of the retrial, Askarov’s lawyers requested again that his initial conviction be quashed and a new investigation be carried out, in accordance with the Human Rights Committee’s conclusions. The court rejected this request and the trial went ahead on the basis of the results of the 2010 investigation, which was characterized by numerous due process violations. When speaking at the retrial, Azimjan Askarov described in detail how he was tortured and threatened during the 2010 investigation in an attempt to force him to confess. Askarov stressed that he believes that he was arrested and charged in retaliation for his human rights work, an impression that is shared by human rights NGOs. His work included efforts to document torture and other unlawful actions by local law enforcement authorities, as well as human rights violations perpetrated in his home community during the 2010 inter-ethnic violence.
“It is of outmost concern that the allegations that Azimjan Askarov was tortured in pre-trial detention have not been properly investigated and that the court ignored the possibility that he was targeted for his human rights work,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director. She continued: “What is more: He was again presumed guilty despite the lack of any credible evidence of his guilt, in serious violation of international fair trial standards.”
In its charges against Askarov, the prosecution primarily relied on the testimonies of law enforcement officials who were not able to provide any detailed or clear account of his alleged role in the events in which he is accused of participating. Victims heard during the trial were allowed to be present in the courtroom at the same time and heard the testimonies of each other, in spite of a motion by the defence to call them one by one. Alleged video footage of the events that the charges against Askarov concern was not presented in court. When questioned, a number of individuals who were convicted together with Askarov all said that they were not present during the events in question and that they were subjected to torture during the investigation and now feared reprisals for appearing in court. The court did not act on these allegations.
“Today’s ruling cannot but reinforce the impression that this elderly human rights defender is paying the price for his efforts to expose violence, torture and other abuses and that he is being kept behind bars because of the inability of the Kyrgyzstani authorities to deal effectively with the inter-ethnic tensions in the south of the country,” said Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director.
Following the 2010 inter-ethnic conflict, ethnic Uzbeks were selectively targeted for prosecution on charges of involvement in it, with systematic fair trial violations marring the trials against them. Azimjan Askarov is the most prominent victim of this miscarriage of justice.
In response to the outcome of the retrial against Askarov, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the decision “highlights serious shortcomings in the country’s judicial system” and “clearly did not take into account the views of the UN Human Rights Committee”. It repeated the Committee’s call that his conviction and sentence should be quashed. Other representatives of the international community have also repeatedly called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to comply with the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee in Askarov’s case. The European Union has stated that the Committee’s decision should be fully implemented and that the new proceedings must take into account the Committee’s findings.
The ruling handed down by Chui Regional Court today may be appealed to the Supreme Court and Askarov’s lawyers have said that they will submit an appeal. Immediately after the verdict was announced, Askarov declared that he would go on hunger strike in protest.
The retrial against Azimjan Askarov was monitored by representatives of civil society, the diplomatic community and media. Within the framework of a project coordinated by IPHR, a representative of the Civic Solidarity Platform – a network of over 80 human rights NGOs from Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America – observed part of the trial.
Background: By ratifying the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Kyrgyzstan has recognized the competence of the UN Human Rights Committee to consider communications from its citizens who allege violations of their rights under the ICCPR, such as in Askarov’s case. Amendments to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution that were approved in a controversial December 2016 referendum abolished a provision obliging national authorities to implement the decisions of international human rights bodies in individual cases. Nevertheless, whether or not spelled out by national law, Kyrgyzstan’s authorities are bound to respect international human rights treaties ratified by the country and to comply with the decisions of bodies supervising the implementation of such treaties.
See also: IPHR statement on Supreme Court ruling on the case of Azimjan Askarov, July 2016