Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court upholds Askarov sentence

New York, December 20, 2011–Today’s ruling by Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court upholding a life sentence for independent journalist Azimjon Askarov on fabricated charges is a lethal blow to press freedom and justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

According to the independent news website Fergana News, the Bishkek-based Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan–the highest judicial body–denied Askarov’s appeal of a lower court verdict sentencing him to jail for life.

“We call for the release of Azimjon Askarov, who has been denied his right to due process with a flawed prosecution and trial on charges that were blatantly fabricated,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Askarov’s conviction is a clear attempt to suppress reports of abuse by Kyrgyz authorities and sets a chilling precedent for freedom of expression in the country.”

Askarov, an independent reporter and head of human rights group Vozdukh (Air) in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, was imprisoned in June 2010 in connection with the inter-ethnic clashes that ravaged southern Kyrgyzstan that summer. Authorities indicted Askarov on a number of charges, such as instigating calls to violence and participation in the murder of an ethnic-Kyrgyz policeman in his native village of Bazar-Korgon. CPJ research shows the charges were fabricated in retaliation for his journalism; Askarov was detained by the same police whose abuse he documented. Authorities confiscated all of his reporting materials.

Prosecutors shunned testimony and failed to investigate allegations that Askarov was tortured in custody, Nurbek Toktakunov, Askarov’s defense lawyer, told CPJ at the time. Despite procedural flaws and a lack of evidence, Judge Nurgazy Alimbayev declared Askarov guilty and sentenced him to life in September 2010.

Local and international press freedom and human rights groups, including CPJ and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have repeatedly called on Kyrgyz authorities to scrap the charges and release Askarov.