September 14, 2010
Dear President Otunbayeva,
The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to call your attention to the politicized prosecution of independent journalist Ulugbek Abdusalomov and human rights reporter and researcher Azimjon Askarov in the southern Jalal-Abad region. Both have been charged with extremism and other serious charges and face lengthy prison sentences, including a life term, if convicted. Their prosecution is in retaliation for their reporting on ethnic discrimination and human rights abuses in southern Kyrgyzstan, according to our research.
In view of your publicly stated commitments to press freedom and human rights, we urge you to take a personal interest in this case and remedy the ongoing injustice against Askarov and Abdusalomov. Their cases have been marred by procedural violations and a lack of evidence. CPJ is particularly disturbed by the reported incidents of torture of Askarov in detention and pressure on his defense lawyer. We ask that you make sure those incidents are thoroughly investigated and the responsible individuals punished to the full extent of the law. We also ask that you ensure that Askarov and Abdusalomov each receive a fair trial.
Regional authorities have been holding Abdusalomov, chief editor of the local independent newspaper Diydor, and Askarov, a reporter, researcher, and head of the local human rights group Vozdukh, since mid-June on allegations of participating in inter-ethnic clashes that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan in May and June.
In a June 23 statement, your government said that Abdusalomov was arrested in connection with May 12-15 protests by ethnic Uzbeks in Jalal-Abad that sparked violent retaliation from the ethnic Kyrgyz population. Prosecutors indicted him in August on charges of organizing and participation in mass disorder, making calls for separatism, and incitement of ethnic hatred through an article published in Diydor that quoted local residents who said they’d been victims of ethnic discrimination as Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan.
However, Abdusalomov’s colleagues told CPJ that at the time of the May protests the journalist was in Bishkek, where he was taking part in meetings of the government-sponsored Constitutional Council, which was tasked with developing a new constitution for Kyrgyzstan. An official transcript of the meetings, available online, confirms that account and clearly identifies Abdusalomov as one of the on-the-record participants.
On August 26, prosecutors sent his case to Jalal-Abad City Court; a trial date has yet to be announced, the independent regional news website Ferghana reported.
Jalal-Abad police arrested Askarov in the village of Bazar-Korgon, where a police officer was killed and several others were wounded in riots on June 12. Regional prosecutors initially charged Askarov with participation in mass riots and incitement of ethnic and religious hatred, but expanded the indictment in August to include 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. Authorities have failed to substantiate any of those charges.
As in Abdusalomov’s case, Askarov was not present at the riots he is accused of attending: According to his lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, and local news reports, at the time, he was documenting human rights violations in southern Kyrgyzstan.
We are concerned by multiple issues in this case. Askarov, who had reported on detainees’ torture by Jalal-Abad police, was himself beaten in detention–a graphic image showing his bruises surfaced in the local press several days after his arrest. A police officer supervises all his defense lawyer visits–a violation of attorney-client privilege. Presiding Judge Nurgazy Alimbayev has failed to address reported physical attacks on Askarov’s lawyer and family during trial hearings by the family of the dead policeman, and the fact that the defense has not been allowed to question prosecution witnesses.
Askarov’s colleagues told CPJ that he has long been at odds with regional officials over his reporting on the abuse of power by law enforcement officials in Jalal-Abad. Now the same agency is in charge of his detention and prosecution. The prosecution is demanding a life sentence for Askarov; a verdict is expected on September 15.
Following the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan, it is of the utmost importance to restore a functioning independent media to the region. Abdusalomov and Askarov are integral part of the independent press corps. Their politicized prosecution not only chills attempts to uncover what happened during the turmoil, but it adds to already widespread self-censorship in Kyrgyzstan. In this crucial moment, we ask you to step in to ensure their fair trial, and guarantee that journalists in Kyrgyzstan have the freedom to report the news without fear of reprisal.