Celebrated human rights activist dies in Kyrgyzstan prison

Celebrated human rights activist dies in Kyrgyzstan prison

Human rights activist Azimjam Askarov has died while in detention in Kyrgyzstan, despite numerous international rulings calling for his immediate and unconditional release. Askarov had already spent 10 years imprisoned after having been wrongfully arrested, on fabricated charges, for his alleged role in the murder of a police inspector while Askarov was documenting the 2010 violence during Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic conflict. Askarov was 69 years old.

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Askarov died the day after he was transferred to a prison medical clinic in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. For weeks prior to his death there were repeated requests for transfer and release due to his severely declining health and the rising threat posed by the novel coronavirus

“Mr. Askarov’s death was avoidable,” said HRF International Legal Associate Michelle Gulino. “The extreme recklessness displayed by Kyrgyzstan’s authorities in failing to provide him with proper medical attention and release him from arbitrary detention — even in his final days — is emblematic of the type of systematic cruelty exhibited by Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian regime against those who expose their injustice.”

In the week leading up to his death, Askarov had fallen ill with coronavirus-like symptoms. The authorities subsequently reported his cause of death as pneumonia. Askarov had been suffering from several chronic illnesses and was at high risk of contracting the virus, given these and other vulnerabilities. 

On July 8, 2020, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) submitted an Urgent Appeal to the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, requesting that it initiate an immediate formal investigation into Askarov’s wrongful arrest, trumped-up charges, and ongoing detention. 

Askarov had worked as the director of Vozdukh (“Air”), Kyrgyzstan’s human rights organization which focused its work on the treatment of detainees and improving detention conditions. He was particularly well-known for his investigation of cases of gross human rights violations by members of the Bazar-Korgon District Department of the Interior.

Roza Otunbayeva, interim president of Kyrgyzstan at the time of Askarov’s sentencing in 2010, declined to issue a pardon in his case. In 2016, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recognized Askarov as a victim of torture, ill-treatment, and unfair trial by the State of Kyrgyzstan and called for his immediate release. In May 2020, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court dismissed Askarov’s request to review his life sentence.