Askarov appeal denied; health deteriorating from beatings

New York, November 12, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by reports that Kyrgyz journalist Azimjon Askarov has been beaten repeatedly in custody.

On Wednesday, an appeals court in the southern Jalal-Abad region upheld the life sentence given in September to Azimjon Askarov, a reporter, researcher, and head of the local human rights group Vozdukh, and six of his co-defendants, the Moscow-based regional news website Ferghana reported. Askarov’s lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, told local journalists he will appeal the verdict in Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court.

Askarov appeared weak at the last hearing, and was due to be transferred today to a prison hospital in the capital, Bishkek, for emergency treatment, the independent regional news website Uznews reported. A local activist, Valentina Gritsenko, who observed the trial told independent news website that Askarov’s health was so grave that he “may die if he isn’t transferred to the hospital.” CPJ was unable to determine whether he was admitted.

“We are outraged by reports of multiple beatings of our colleague Azimjon Askarov, and hold the Kyrgyz authorities responsible for his welfare,” CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney said. “The authorities must ensure that Askarov receive adequate medical attention immediately, and that these beatings cease and those responsible are brought to justice.

Askarov and his co-defendants were allegedly beaten in custody on numerous occasions, according to Toktakunov and press reports. According to Ferghana, Askarov needed help to enter the courtroom on November 4. The same day, escorting police officers reportedly beat him and other defendants when they were leaving the court, the New York-based international human rights group Human Rights Watch said, citing eyewitnesses.

Authorities arrested Askarov in his native village of Bazar-Korgon in June, and tried him in connection with the killing of a police officer during the ethnic conflict that engulfed southern Kyrgyzstan that month. In September, he was sentenced to life on charges of participation in mass riots; incitement to ethnic and religious hatred; 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.

“We call on the president to ensure that Askarov is released pending appeal,” Mahoney said. “We ask the Supreme Court to overturn this fabricated case.” CPJ has repeatedly protested Askarov’s arrest and urged Kyrgyz authorities to release him.

Askarov denied involvement in the killing and participation in the conflict, Toktakunov told CPJ.  According to CPJ research, Askarov documented police abuse and inaction during the riots, and gathered reports on ethnic clashes for Vozdukh’s publication, Pravo Dlya Vsekh (Justice for All). Local sources told CPJ they believe Askarov was jailed in retaliation for his reporting on detainee torture by Jalal-Abad police in Vozdukh’s monthly bulletin and on the independent regional news website Voice of Freedom.