Kyrgyzstan authorities have yet to conduct an independent investigation into the death in detention on July 25, 2020, of the human rights defender and journalist Azimjon Askarov, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Movement: Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan, and International Partnership for Human Rights said Friday.
Askarov was arrested in 2010 while documenting inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and had been unjustly held in prison for 10 years, serving a life sentence imposed after an unfair trial marred by torture and ill-treatment.
“Kyrgyz authorities have failed to investigate human rights violations that led to Azimjon Askarov’s death,” said Philippe Dam, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “A full year has passed without any sign of an independent and credible investigation into the circumstances of his death and the human rights violations he suffered.”
The Kyrgyz authorities’ inquiry into Azimjon Askarov’s death was conducted by the prison service, the same authority that oversaw Askarov’s arbitrary detention for 10 years. The inquiry was neither independent nor impartial as required under international law, the groups said. It closed in May 2021. The prison authorities concluded that Askarov died from complications of COVID-19 but denied that he was ill-treated in prison. They said that no one could be held responsible for his death, referring to the challenging epidemiological situation in the country at the time of his death.
“Askarov was arbitrarily detained, tortured, and denied justice for over a decade,” said Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “His death in prison should not remain unaccounted for.”
Askarov died at age 69 on July 25, 2020, after his health dramatically deteriorated following years of worsening medical problems for which he did not receive adequate treatment in prison. It was known that he would be particularly vulnerable if he were to contract Covid-19.
Despite a number of appeals from his lawyer and family for urgent intervention to protect his health, it was only on July 24, when he had already been seriously ill for 10 days, that he was transferred to a prison hospital for examination and treatment. Tragically, Askarov died with Covid-19 related pneumonia the following day, after being denied timely and adequate medical care. As late as the day before Askarov’s death, the prison service insisted that reports about the defender’s deteriorating health were incorrect and that he was “doing well.”
The Kyrgyz civil society organization, Human Rights Movement: Bir-Duino Kyrgyzstan, filed a complaint with the court against the prison service’s decision to close the investigation, saying that it was unlawful and highlighting investigators’ failure to interview key witnesses. On July 1, 2021, a Bishkek district court rejected this complaint, a decision that Bir-Duino said it would appeal.
In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and ill-treated without redress, and denied a fair trial. The committee said that Kyrgyzstan should immediately release Askarov, quash his conviction, and provide him with adequate compensation and rehabilitation.
“Kyrgyzstan’s international partners should press the Kyrgyz government to ensure a truly independent and effective probe into his death and to finally implement the UN Human Rights Committee decision on his case,” said Brigitte Dufour, director at International Partnership for Human Rights.
The Kyrgyz authorities should comply with their international human rights obligations and promptly conduct an effective, independent, and impartial investigation into Azimjon Askarov’s death, grant compensation to his family for the rights violations he suffered, and posthumously ensure his legal rehabilitation, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Movement: Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan, and International Partnership for Human Rights said.
“Human rights defender Azimjon Askarov deserves justice and his loved ones have the right to see his name cleared and to receive adequate compensation for the injustice served him,” said Claire Ivers, head of EU office at Front Line Defenders.