Kyrgyz human rights reporter sentenced to life in prison

New York, September 15, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists is disturbed by the conviction and life sentence handed to human rights reporter Azimjon Askarov by a court in Jalal-Abad region, southern Kyrgyzstan, today. 

Judge Nurgazy Alimbayev pronounced Askarov guilty on a wide range of charges, including complicity to commit homicide and murder of a police officer (two separate counts related to the same incident), possession of ammunition and extremist literature, and attempted kidnapping, the independent regional news website Ferghana reported. CPJ research shows that the charges are unfounded and that Askarov may have been targeted for revenge by Jalal-Abad law enforcement because of his documentation of human rights violations, including by local police, in southern Kyrgyzstan. 

Askarov’s lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov told CPJ he planned to appeal.

“We are outraged by the sentence delivered today in Jalal-Abad to Azimjon Askarov, and call on Kyrgyzstan’s higher courts to overturn his verdict,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Askarov’s prosecution and trial were marred by procedural violations, which must be investigated, and he must be guaranteed a fair appeal.”

Jalal-Abad police arrested Askarov in the village of Bazar-Korgon, where an officer was killed and several others wounded during ethnic clashes that engulfed southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-June. Prosecutors failed to prove Askarov was at the scene, Toktakunov said. 

Reports of Askarov’s torture in police custody and of intimidation of his lawyer have gone uninvestigated. Images showing bruises on Askarov’s back and face were published in the regional press after his arrest. The Dublin-based human rights group Front Line, whose representative attended Askarov’s trial, said that supporters of the prosecution openly threatened to kill Toktakunov during the proceedings, but the judge did not have them removed.

Askarov has denied all the charges against him. In addition to the life term, the judge ordered Askarov’s property confiscated, the regional news website Voice of Freedom reported. Press freedom and human rights groups have called on Kyrgyz authorities to release Askarov. On Tuesday, CPJ urged Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva to ensure that he receives a fair trial.