Kyrgyz official urged to address Askarov case

Kyrgyzstan has endured a turbulent past and continues to face significant challenges, but its leaders are committed to a democratic future, Djoomart Otorbayev, the nation’s deputy prime minister, told human rights and press freedom advocates in New York this week. The country still grapples with the repercussions of the brutal June 2010 ethnic conflict that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Journalist Azimjon Askarov remains in prison on charges that CPJ and numerous human rights groups have determined to be in retaliation for his work in uncovering official abuses during the unrest.

Otorbayev said the ethnic tensions spiraled out of control because of the disintegration of police and other key state agencies following two popular uprisings, in 2005 and 2010, that ousted the corrupt regimes of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Authorities, he said, are working hard to learn from their mistakes to build a democratic country where the “rights of an individual will be above all” and ethnic minorities will be treated equally. He said Kyrgyzstan is open to recommendations from international groups, including from the human rights community.

“State agencies will be rated on their compliance with [external] recommendations, and if they fail to succeed implementing them, their top officials will be removed from the offices,” said Otorbayev, describing a new government initiative. He fielded questions from representatives of CPJ, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, Columbia University, and the discussion’s host, the U.S. government-funded Freedom House. The attendees asked about disputes in Kyrgyzstan’s gold mining industry, the prospects of regional economic development, accountability for the June 2010 ethnic violence, and the government’s plans to incorporate ethnic minorities into public life.

CPJ and others suggested that Kyrgyzstan must address shortcomings in press freedom and human rights, among them Askarov’s unjust imprisonment. In September 2010, authorities sentenced Askarov to life in prison on charges of conspiracy to murder, attempted hostage-taking, and incitement to violence. The government’s own human rights ombudsman said the charges were fabricated in retaliation for Askarov’s journalism, a conclusion also reached by CPJ, Human Rights Watch, and Open Society Foundations. Freedom House’s Kyrgyzstan office produced a documentary that detailed official abuses in Askarov’s prosecution.

“Askarov’s case is symbolic,” said Daniel Sershen of the Open Society Foundations. It reflects many of current problems that require immediate action–unjust persecution of ethnic minorities in connection with the 2010 conflict (Askarov is ethnic Uzbek), police abuse of the detainees (Askarov was tortured in jail), and unfair trials (no defense witness could testify in court on behalf of Askarov due to intimidation).

Otorbayev said he was not aware of Askarov’s case and could not comment on it. The participants asked him to relay our concerns to authorities in Bishkek, and we offered our assistance in providing information. We also asked that Kyrgyzstan stand by the promises made by President Almazbek Atambayev, who declared his commitment to the rule of law. Atambayev said in December that Askarov’s case should be reviewed if new evidence emerges.

That evidence is being collected. In the last year, Askarov’s lawyers were able to gather statements from defense witnesses, many of whom said that the journalist did not commit any of the crimes for which he was accused. All were dissuaded from testifying at the original trial because of intense intimidation, CPJ said in our June 2012 report.

In a February letter to Aida Salyanova, Kyrgyzstan’s top prosecutor, CPJ urged authorities to commission a group of independent investigators to review Askarov’s case. We pointed out that the Kyrgyz criminal code mandates a review in cases of suspected tortured or biased prosecution. Both apply to Askarov’s case, and have been highlighted in the complaint his lawyers filed at the U.N. Human Rights Committee in November 2012.

Otorbayev agreed to pass our concerns to authorities. We’re looking forward to their reply.