Askarov v. Kyrgyzstan
Human Rights Defender Tortured by Police and Denied a Fair Trial
In June 2010, Azimjan Askarov, a prominent human rights defender in Kyrgyzstan, was taken to the police station after a police officer was killed during an outburst of ethnic violence in the Bazar-Korgon region of southern Kyrgyzstan. There, Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was repeatedly beaten, abused, and denied medical treatment on account of his human rights work. His lawyer, who was only able to see him after a week of torture, was attacked when he tried to visit. These attacks continued during the trial, when police beat Askarov and his co-defendants, and crowds shouted ethnic abuse at their lawyers and threatened potential defense witnesses with violence. After this flagrantly unfair trial, Askarov was sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which was upheld during an appeal that was marred by similar violations, and eventually also by the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan.
The UN Human Rights Committee found that Askarov had been tortured, arbitrarily detained, denied a fair trial, and that he was not provided with adequate medical treatment. The Committee urged Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov and repeal his conviction. Instead, Kyrgyz authorities conducted a second trial that was similarly flawed. Askarov was denied medical treatment for the effects of his torture and other serious conditions. He passed away in prison on July 25, 2020.
On June 12, 2010, ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan prompted residents of Bazar-Korgon village, many of them ethnic Uzbeks, to gather at a bridge to protect their village in the event of an attack. On the morning of June 13, police officers arrived to allegedly disperse the crowd, violence ensued, and one police officer was killed. Later that day, the ethnic violence shaking the region spread to Bazar-Korgon region, leaving 20 people dead and over 200 houses destroyed.
Askarov was not at the bridge when the police officer was killed. A few days later, on June 15, 2010, Askarov was documenting the damage and deaths caused by the violence when police officers took him to the Bazar-Korgon police station, where the deceased officer had worked. At the station, officers first attempted to convince Askarov to testify that other prominent members of the Uzbek community had allegedly distributed weapons, and when he said he knew nothing about this, they started beating him. Askarov was then accused of involvement in the death of the police officer, and for the next four days, he was repeatedly beaten and humiliated by police who specifically mentioned his work as a human rights defender. When a judge authorized his detention, three days after his arrest, both the judge and prosecutor declared that his guilt was proven.
Askarov was denied access to a lawyer until a week after he was detained, when a colleague came to visit him and realized he was being tortured. The police and prosecutor refused to allow Askarov the opportunity to meet with his lawyer in private, and his lawyer was attacked by relatives of the dead officer when he came to visit Askarov, who continued to be held in the deceased officer’s police station. These attacks continued during the trial, at which Askarov and his co-defendants were beaten by police during breaks in the hearings, and a crowd of supporters of the deceased police officer hurled ethnic abuse at the defendants, their lawyers, and potential defense witnesses. This climate of intimidation, which the judge did nothing to control, prevented the defense lawyers from mounting an effective defense, or from questioning or calling witnesses to testify on Askarov’s behalf. After this flagrantly unfair trial, Askarov was declared guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison on September 15, 2010.
Although Askarov’s lawyer appealed the verdict, similar violations marred his appeal hearing. Threats and attacks by supporters of the deceased officer again prevented defense witnesses from appearing, and the court upheld his conviction and sentence. He appealed again to the Supreme Court, and although his lawyer was permitted to submit written witness statements, the court ignored them. The Supreme Court upheld Askarov’s sentence of life imprisonment in December 2011, and Askarov remained in prison where he was denied medical treatment for the effects of the repeated torture and other potentially life-threatening medical conditions. He passed away in prison on July 25, 2020.
Open Society Justice Initiative Involvement
The Open Society Justice Initiative acted as co-counsel with lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov in the complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee. The Justice Initiative continued to act as counsel during the implementation phase before the Committee and has now withdrawn from the case as of November 21, 2022.
Torture and Ill-treatment. While in custody, Askarov was repeatedly beaten and abused by police officers for the purpose of obtaining a false confession, due to discrimination on the grounds of Askarov’s ethnic origin, and as punishment for reporting police abuse. This ill-treatment amounts to torture in violation of Article 7 of the ICCPR and was exacerbated by the conditions in which Askarov was detained and the failure to provide medical treatment, in further violation of Article 7.
Failure to Investigate or Provide Redress for Torture. The government has failed to conduct an impartial, effective, and thorough investigation into the repeated torture of Askarov, and has failed to provide him with remedies for that torture, including compensation and medical treatment or rehabilitation, in further violation of Article 7 in conjunction with Article 2(3).
Unlawful and Arbitrary Detention. Askarov’s detention was not in accordance with domestic law, as it was not promptly registered, his family was not informed, and he was not transferred to a proper pre-trial detention facility. It also had no legitimate purpose and was motivated by his role as a human rights defender and his ethnicity. It was therefore unlawful and arbitrary in violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR, as well as the prohibition against discrimination in Articles 2 and 26. The conditions in which he was detained, in particular at the Bazar-Korgon police station, were also inhumane and in violation of Article 10.
Violation of Pretrial and Fair Trial Rights. Askarov was denied adequate time and facilities to prepare his defense, particularly the ability to communicate with his counsel, and public officials violated the presumption of innocence by making statements that he was guilty, in violation of Article 14(2) and (3)(b) and (d). The lack of independence and impartiality in Askarov’s trial and subsequent appeal process and the atmosphere of intimidation both at trial and on appeal also violated his rights to a fair hearing, in further violation of Article 14.
Violation of Rights as a Human Rights Defender. The authorities detained and tortured Askarov, and denied him a fair trial, in large part because of his work as a human rights defender in the Kyrgyz Republic, in violation of Articles 9 and 19 of the ICCPR.
The UN Human Rights Committee found Kyrgyzstan responsible for several violations of ICCPR:
- The state failed to protect Askarov from torture and ill-treatment while he was in custody, in violation of Article 7 of the ICCPR. The investigation into the allegations of torture was not carried out promptly or effectively. While more than 100 law enforcement officers, judges, court clerks and prosecutors were interviewed, they did not speak to key witnesses such as Askarov’s lawyers, human rights defenders who visited the author in detention, or his relatives.
- Askarov was arbitrarily detained from June 15-16, 2010. In the absence of any pertinent explanation from the State party regarding Askarov’s whereabouts, the conditions of his detention, and the record of arrest, the Committee considered that Askarov’s rights under Article 9, paragraph 1, of the ICCPR were violated.
- The Committee found that the State party had failed to provide proper medical treatment for Askarov in detention, in violation of Article 10 of the ICCPR.
- The Committee noted the author’s allegations that the trial was characterized by a number of irregularities, such as disorder and violence caused by the public attending the trial. Askarov’s inability to call and cross-examine witnesses was a violation of Article 14, paragraph 3(e) of the ICCPR.
- The Kyrgyz authorities failed to secure Askarov’s right to communicate with counsel of his own choosing. The police and prosecutor refused to allow Askarov to meet with his lawyer in private and withheld information necessary to prepare for his defense. On several occasions, relatives of the deceased police officer physically attacked Askarov’s lawyer on the premises of the police station and the prosecutor’s office while the police and local prosecutors failed to intervene, creating a general sense of fear, incompatible with the proper execution of the defense lawyer’s functions. There was unrefuted evidence that on the first day of the trial, on September 2, 2010, Askarov’s lawyer was not present at the hearings due to his late notification, while the court heard 16 prosecution witnesses. The Committee concluded that the facts as submitted revealed a violation of Askarov’s rights under Article 14, paragraph 3(b) of the ICCPR.
The Committee urged Kyrgyzstan to provide an effective remedy and full reparation, including his immediate release and quashing of his conviction, and, if necessary, a new trial, subject to the principles of fair hearings, the presumption of innocence and other procedural safeguards; and to provide him with adequate compensation.
The Justice Initiative files its final follow-up submission to the Human Rights Committee on the implementation of its views and announces its withdrawal from the case.
The Kyrgyz government submits its observations to the Human Rights Committee.
After pressure mounts from national and international human rights organizations, the investigation is reopened with the Prosecutor General’s Office assigning the task to the State Committee for National Security.
The lawyers for Askarov’s family petition the Prosecutor’s Office to transfer the investigation to the State Committee for National Security, instead of the State Penitentiary Service, with an aim to secure the independence and impartiality of the new investigation.
The Sverdlovsk District Court of Bishkek rules that the decision to close the investigation was indeed “unlawful and unreasonable.”
The Bishkek City Court quashes the ruling, returning the case to the Sverdlovsk District Court of Bishkek for a reconsideration.
The investigative judge of the Sverdlovsky District Court of Bishkek rejects the appeal due to the expiration of the deadline. The attorneys challenge this decision before the Bishkek City Court, arguing that they only received the decision terminating the proceedings only on June 16, 2021.
Askarov’s attorneys file an appeal against the decision of the state penitentiary service authorities, ending the investigation.
The State Penitentiary Service authorities closes the investigation into Askarov’s death.
The Justice Initiative files a new submission as part of the follow-up procedure to the Human Rights Committee on the implementation of its views.
The State Penitentiary Service authorities initiate an investigation concerning the death of Askarov, which suffers from serious flaws.
Askarov dies at Penal Colony #47 of the State Penitentiary Service a day after being transferred to receive a medical examination. The cause of his death, which occurred after he experienced severe symptoms of COVID-19 for two weeks, is recorded as “double pneumonia.”
The Administrative Court of Bishkek refuses to hear Askarov’s case against the Kyrgyz government regarding the implementation of the views of the UN Human Rights Committee. Judge Cholpon Dosmambetova terminates proceedings, noting that the case cannot be subject to administrative processing because the dispute did not arise from administrative relations between the Kyrgyz Government and Askarov.
The Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic upholds Askarov's life sentence.
The Justice Initiative files another submission as part of the follow-up procedure to the Human Rights Committee on the implementation of its Views.
The Justice Initiative files a submission as part of the follow-up procedure to the Human Rights Committee on the implementation of its Views.
The court upholds the original life sentence imposed on Mr Askarov in 2010, after a process in which the defendant’s rights were again summarily ignored.
The re-trial at Chui Oblast court, at the appeal level, takes place. The court upholds the original life sentence imposed on Askarov in 2010, after a process in which the defendant’s rights are again summarily ignored.
The Supreme Court sends the case back to the appeal court for further review.
The UN Human Rights Committee adopts its views that the government of Kyrgyzstan is responsible for arbitrary detention, torture, and violation of Askarov’s fair trial rights.
The U.S. State Department announces that Askarov is a recipient of the Human Rights Defender Award, which is given to individuals or non-governmental organizations that have shown exceptional valor and leadership in advocating for the protection of human rights and democracy. Due to Askarov’s imprisonment, his son, Sherzod, accepts the award on his behalf in Washington, D.C. One week later, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariev signs a decree canceling a 1993 aid agreement with the United States.
The Justice Initiative submits a reply to government observations.
The Justice Initiative receives new government observations.
The Bishkek City Court allows the appeal.
The District Court finds the decision of the General Prosecutor’s office was unlawful as investigators did not study all the circumstances of the case and the investigation was not thorough and objective. The prosecutor’s office appeals.
The Justice Initiative submits a reply to government observations.
Kyrgyzstan files a response to the communication.
The deputy general prosecutor issues an order establishing an investigative group to study the newly discovered circumstances.
The Justice Initiative and Nurbek Toktakunov submit a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of Azimjan Askarov.
The Committee to Protect Journalists awards Askarov with a 2012 Press Freedom Award as one of four journalists who had “risked their lives and liberty to reveal abuses of power and human rights violations.”
The Supreme Court upholds the Appeal Court’s decision and sentence against Askarov.
People in Need awards Askarov the Homo Homini Award, based on his perseverance “despite threats, detention and imprisonment along with physical abuse.”
The Appeal Court upholds the decision and sentence of the District Court.
The District Court finds Askarov guilty of all crimes charged and sentences him to life imprisonment.
The prosecutor files criminal charges against Askarov for incitement of violence, racial hatred, riot, and humiliation of national dignity and honor.
Officers from the Bazar-Korgon police station take Askarov to a station, where they detain him without notifying his family and torture him.
A police officer is killed in Bazar-Korgon during ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan.
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