Tashkent, Uzbekistan – A court in Kyrgyzstan has upheld a life sentence awarded to a prominent Uzbek human rights activist, who was jailed for life following ethnic clashes in the southern part of the country in 2010.
The Chui regional court in northern Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday agreed with the prosecutors, who opposed Azimjon Askarov’s release since he was convicted of murder.
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Representatives from the British, German and Swiss embassies, as well as from rights groups, the Human Rights Watch and the UNHRC, attended the hearing, which was held in the 68-year-old activist’s absence.
Askarov, one of the Central Asian country’s longest-serving political prisoners, was arrested following ethnic violence between the local Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks in June 2010 in southern Kyrgyzstan, which left more than 450 people dead and thousands of others displaced.
Askarov was found guilty of inciting the interethnic clashes and for involvement in the murder of a police officer, who was brutally killed by a mob during the violence.
Askarov’s supporters say the government had used the 2010 clashes to silence him from speaking out against the persecution of Uzbeks.
Amendments to the Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan in 2017, which came into force this year, allowed Askarov’s lawyers to apply for a review of his sentence. The amendments changed the length of sentences for certain offences.
Rights groups appealed for review
Last month, eight international human rights groups issued a letter to Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, asking her to bring up the case of Askarov, who faced health issues, with the Kyrgyz authorities during her visit in Bishkek.
Rights groups claimed Askarov had not received a fair trial and that the investigation into his case, which primarily depended on testimonies given by police officers, had procedural mistakes.
“Once again, a Kyrgyz court has blown the opportunity to stop a miscarriage of justice,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
“They could have reviewed the crime, which would have changed the sentence and created a path towards his release, but they didn’t,” she said, calling the life sentence a “result of a deeply flawed trial”.
Denber said Askarov was beaten and tortured in custody following his arrest in 2010, and was denied access to his lawyer.
“One of the co-defendants who testified against him years later at another appeal on the case stated that police had pressured her in the original trial to testify against Askarov, threatening to jail her son if she did not comply,” said Denber.
“At the trial, there was also a mob of supporters of the policeman’s family who attacked Azimjon’s lawyer.”
Denber said the court was shown pictures of Askarov with bruises on his body. “That’s why it was a miscarriage of justice,” she said.
In July 2016, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court ordered a review of Askarov’s case. But in January the next year, a court in Bishkek again found him guilty of inciting hatred and violence and being an accomplice in murder.
Prejudices against Uzbeks
Before the 2010 riots, Askarov was known for exposing police brutality and cases of torture. As an ethnic Uzbek, he was also seen as a suspicious element due to the prejudices again the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan.
“Since 2010, many of the problems which caused the violence have remained, and even become worse. Structural discrimination remains a key issue,” Edward Lemon, DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
“The local government, especially law enforcement, remains dominated by ethnic Kyrgyz. Police are viewed by many Uzbeks as corrupt, greedy and biased against them.”
Analysts say reforms such as the introduction of a council for the selection of judges in 2011 could not prevent Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary from being seen as corrupt and biased towards political opponents.
Lemon said the Uzbeks report being discriminated against in medical facilities, schools and workplaces in Kyrgyzstan, which gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“For a population of over 900,000 people, just 64 schools taught in Uzbek language as of 2017. Standardised tests for admission to universities are unavailable to the Uzbeks since 2013,” he said.
“What this amounts to is a systematic attempt to marginalise the country’s Uzbeks. Askarov is just one example of the mistreatment.”