Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court says it will hold a hearing into the case of jailed rights activist Azimjan Askarov on July 11, possibly setting the stage for a climbdown in a saga that has drawn broad international condemnation.
The court said in statement on June 22 that the fresh review comes at the request of Askarov’s lawyers, who have cited newly discovered evidence.
The news comes amid growing fears about Askarov’s health. In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year. Askarov denies all charges.
In April, the UN Human Rights Committee pressed Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov, piling more pressure onto a government that has reacted intemperately to criticism from multiple quarters.
Askarov’s flawed trial was followed up by a catalog of physical abuse in prison, according to international activists.
In 2012, the Swiss-based International Commission of Jurists wrote in a report that Askarov has “described multiple occasions of severe and continuous beatings, including with a gun, punches and kicks, threat of death, threat to relatives, insults, and lack of basic necessities such as toilet facilities.”
Kyrgyz and international human rights organizations have repeatedly claimed Askarov was targeted for prosecution because of his history of human rights activism, which highlighted the violations and abuses of police officers.
The UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds for Askarov to solicit for reconsideration of a final and non-appealable decision of the Supreme Court under Article 41 of Kyrgyz Constitution and request revision of his case.
In the wake of fresh arrests in Kyrgyzstan of would-be coup plotters, President Almazbek Atambayev indulged in another surreal tirade on May 15 against opposition politicians and nongovernmental groups.
The remarks came three days after the arrest of several prominent government critics — former Agriculture Minister Bekbolot Talgarbekov, ex-Finance Minister Marat Sultanov, one-time presidential candidate Torobay Kolubayev — on charges of plotting to seize power. Evidence provided by the authorities for the supposed coup scheme dreamed up by Talgarbekov, Sultanov and Kolubayev consists so far of a recorded conversation that left many skeptical. In a separate case, inveterate troublemaker and businessman Nurlan Motuyev is in hot water over his repeated and downright bizarre praise for the Islamic State group.
But Atambayev is in no mood to wait for due process and quoted eccentrically at an event at his presidential residence from a well-known poem, Quartet by early 19th century Russian writer Ivan Krylov, to deride the jailed foursome. The brief satirical poem tells the story of a group of animals — a monkey, a donkey, a goat and a bear — who try in vain to form a musical ensemble, much to the mockery of a nightingale.
“You, my friends, no matter what your positions, will never be musicians,” Atambayev noted gleefully, quoting the nightingale.
The caustic irreverence sounds an odd note against what the government has sought to cast as the mounting specter of potentially violent sedition. Another three opposition figures from an unrelated faction were arrested in March on the basis of similar accusations of plotting the “violent overthrow of power.”
Rights groups have pressed Tajikistan to unconditionally release lawyers who were jailed after taking on cases of behalf of political opposition figures.
Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement on May 4 that the intimidation of rights lawyers has become commonplace in Tajikistan and even extended to the lawyers’ relatives.
“The Tajik government is tightening the screws on lawyers it deems trouble, locking up those who represent the opposition alongside its political foes,” HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said in the statement. “Each day these lawyers spend behind bars is a disgrace and brings shame on Tajikistan’s judicial system.”
In some cases lawyers have been targets of death threats.
The escalation of pressure against the legal profession intensified following the liquidation of the country’s only remaining viable opposition force, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Almost all the party’s leading figures were arrested in the wake of a purported attempted coup d’etat in early September. Lawyers agreeing to represent the IRPT leaders were immediately targeted for arrest in flimsily fabricated cases.
“Since 2014, Tajik authorities have arrested or imprisoned at least five human rights lawyers — Shukhrat Kudratov, Fakhriddin Zokirov, Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, Dilbar Dodojonova — and Firuz and Daler Tabarov, sons of Iskhok Tabarov, another prominent lawyer,” HRW and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee noted in their statement.
Zokirov has since been released, but all the rest are still imprisoned. He and Kudratov represented government critic Zaid Saidov, who has been serving a 26-year jail sentence since late 2013.
Following the most potent criticism to date over the treatment of jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, Kyrgyzstan’s highest court said on April 25 that the case may be reviewed after all.
Whether that means Askarov could be released is not yet certain, but it suggests the authorities may be changing tack from their usual indignant combativeness over the issue.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free the rights activist, who it said had been subjected to torture and denied a fair trial. In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year. Many suspect he had been singled out for prosecution because of this prior activism highlight the routine abuses of police officers.
A day after the UN issued its statement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) doubled down on the calls for Kyrgyzstan to overturn Askarov’s sentence.
“Kyrgyzstan now has an opportunity to correct this injustice, restoring both Mr. Askarov’s rights and its national human rights record in this regard,” ODIHR director Michael Georg Link said in a statement. “Freeing him will also send a strong signal to law enforcement and judicial actors in Kyrgyzstan that the rule of law must be upheld equally for all citizens.”
The Supreme Court said in a statement that the UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds, under Article 41 of the constitution, for Askarov to lodge a fresh appeal.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee on April 21 urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately free jailed activist Azimjan Askarov, who it said has been subjected to mistreatment and torture since his imprisonment in 2010.
That appeal is bound to provoke deep irritation in Kyrgyzstan, which has reacted combatively to all international appeals over this particular case.
The Human Rights Committee said in a statement that 18 international human rights experts had found that Kyrgyzstan routinely flouted articles of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in their treatment of Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year.
Echoing the positions adopted earlier by advocacy groups and Western governments, the UN rights committee said Askarov had been denied the basic right to properly prepare for his trial and criticized the manner of his initial detention.
“Askarov was initially detained at the police station where the deceased officer was based and … no specific security measures were in place to safeguard him,” the UN rights committee statement said.
Committee members ruled that independent medical examinations suggested Askarov had been subjected to acts of torture.
A subsequent inquiry in 2013 was found to be lacking “the element of impartiality, as it interviewed more than 100 law enforcement officers, judges, court clerks and prosecutors but failed to interview [Askarov’s] lawyers, human rights defenders who visited him in prison, and his relatives,” the committee said.
Going by recent form, Kyrgyzstan is unlikely to take this parade of charges well.
A video uploaded to Internet showing a police officer in Uzbekistan stamping on a woman’s face has caused a ripple of indignation.
It is unclear who created or uploaded the footage, which has now been circulated more widely by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik.
What can be seen in the short video is a woman lying face up on the ground as she is aggressively addressed by a policeman standing next to her. At one stage the officer stamps on the woman’s face and then kicks her in the head.
Ozodlik reported that the incident took place on April 10 in the Uchtepa district in the capital, Tashkent. The radio station reported that the victim of the maltreatment was 55 years old and that the police officer was called Izzatulla Hashimov.
When Ozodlik contacted Hashimov for comment on the incident, he denied that it had even taken place.
“The police got a report that this woman was disrupting the public peace. She was shouting, running after small children and threw herself under a car. She then lay on the hood of a car. We called an ambulance and the doctors took her away. We later learned that she attacked the doctors as well,” Hashimov said, relating his version of events.
A local resident told Ozodlik that the woman in the incident was well presented and was indeed shouting in the street, apparently in the grip of psychotic fit. A group of people gathered around and tried to calm her down, but to no avail, which is when the police were called.
In an apparent climbdown, a parliamentary committee in Kyrgyzstan has hastily rushed through a watered-down version of Russian-inspired legislation that would have seen many nongovernmental groups billed as “foreign agents.”
The Human Rights and Constitutional Legislation Committee spent less than a minute discussing the revised bill at its usual weekly hearing on April 12.
The draft law was first proposed in 2014 by former deputies Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, only to then make its way through parliament at snail’s pace. The overhauled version is hard to recognize from the original and will be considered at a plenary hearing of parliament on April 14.
While the previous draft bill proposed to label both Kyrgyz and foreign-based non-profit organizations that engage in any deemed to be “political activity” and receive outside funding as “foreign agents,” this term has now been quietly dropped.
The new document instead proposes the term “foreign non-commercial organization” to describe entities founded outside Kyrgyzstan that do not pursue profit-making purposes. Foreign government will not be allowed to found such groups.
And rather than requiring the submission of onerous and time-consuming paperwork to the Justice Ministry, as required in the original draft bill, the non-commercial organizations will now just have to publish an annual report online containing a breakdown of expenditure and display who is providing funding.
Protesters at a small rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 18, 2016.
A handful of civil society campaigners staged a rare picket in Almaty on March 18, demanding freedom for a political activist sentenced to jail on incitement charges.
The protest took place two days before Kazakhstan votes in a snap parliamentary election, and was the first time activists had staged any such actions during a lackluster campaign for an election certain to be won by the ruling party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Freedom for Yermek Narymbayev,” chanted the five activists who took part in the picket on a pedestrian shopping thoroughfare in downtown Almaty.
They held up banners in Kazakh, English and Russian showing demands such as “Free human rights defender Yermek Narymbayev” and calling for the abolition of Article 174 of the criminal code under which he was jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife.
The protest lasted approximately three minutes and attracted little attention on a quiet and rainy weekday morning.
With no police in the immediate vicinity to witness it, no arrests were made. Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan and protesters are frequently detained on charges of breaching stringent public assembly laws.
Narymbayev was handed a three-year jail term in January on charges of inciting ethnic enmity following a trial in which fellow activist Serikzhan Mambetalin received a two-year term.
The two were released under house arrest shortly after their sentencing pending an appeal hearing due later this month. They spent four months in jail before their release, and will return to prison to serve out their time if the appeal fails.
“The Kazakh system for investigating police abuses is so riddled with loop-holes and the protection of vested interests that torturers are able to act with virtual impunity,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director.
A crucial finding was that vested interests hamper investigations into torture claims, preventing eradication of the abuse.
“The underlying factor behind the barriers to justice facing victims of torture in Kazakhstan is that it is not in the interests of the agencies and individuals who carry out investigations of torture to do so impartially and objectively,” the report stated.
Obtaining justice is an up-hill struggle as investigators play “bureaucratic ping-pong” with those who file complaints about police abuse.
Maklakov, one of 12 case studies in the report, filed his complaint in 2006.
A court in Tajikistan has ruled to extend the detention of jailed lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov by two months, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service, Radio Ozodi.
Ozodi cites the press service of the Ismoil Somoni district court in Dushanbe as saying that the extension is required for further investigation into the case.
Yorov was arrested in September on charges of fraud and forging documents only days after he agreed to represent 13 members of the now-banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), whose entire leadership stands accused of attempting to topple the government. The case against Yorov relates to an alleged incident in 2010, when he is said to have received $4,000 dollars from an individual in the city of Istaravshan.
Yorov’s relatives said that court decision on the extension of his detention was adopted in their presence on January 28, Ozodi reported. “We saw him close up, and he felt fine,” one relative told the broadcaster.
Unrelenting pressure against the opposition is par for the course for a government increasingly reliant on unfettered authoritarian measures, but the mistreatment of lawyers is a particularly grim harbinger.
Another lawyer acting for the IRPT, Nuriddin Mahkamov, was arrested on October 22.
Compounding their international reputation for legal nihilism, the authorities earlier this month detained three foreign lawyers — two from Turkey, another from Russia — who had traveled to Tajikistan in the hope of meeting the jailed IRPT members and lawyers.