- Azimzhan Askarov is a reporter and human rights activist who was convicted, beaten, and given a life sentence in apparent retribution for his work.
- The 68-year-old has been jailed for 9 years and his health is deteriorating, prompting numerous human rights groups to fear for him in the coronavirus crisis.
- In June 2010 he set out to report on the death of a police officer, but was instead accused of inciting the crime, in a case that the UN has determined was completely unjust.
- Kyrgyzstan broke ties with the US after the State Department gave him a prestigious bravery award in 2015, Radio Free Europe reported.
- He is now the only imprisoned journalist in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. His final appeal is May 11.
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Azimzhan Askarov set out to report on the killing of a police officer. Instead of getting to write his story, he was accused of inciting the murder. On May 11, he faces his last chance to appeal his unjust conviction.
Journalist and human rights activist Askarov was jailed for life 9 years ago after reporting on ethnic violence in Jalalabad, Kyrgyzstan.
Despite several changes of government, his case has never been overturned, and he remains the sole imprisoned journalist in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Askarov, who turns 69 in May, lives in harsh conditions which put him at risk of contracting the coronavirus. As of June 2019, his prison denied medications for an ongoing and painful bone condition, and he has suffered heart problems throughout his imprisonment, according to the CPJ.
The charges he was convicted on in September 2010, which included incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer, were described as being unfounded in 2016 by the UN Human Rights Committee.
His case has led to the breakdown in relations between Kyrgyzstan and the US, where the State Department awarded him a prestigious human rights prize in 2015. After this, Kyrgyzstan’s then-Prime Minister Temir Sariev terminated relations with the US, Radio Free Europe reported.
In 2018, Florida senator Marco Rubio called for Askarov’s release.
—Senator Rubio Press (@SenRubioPress) September 28, 2018
In June 2010, Askarov had been reporting on rising tensions between ethnic Uzbek and Kyrgyz people in his hometown of Bazar-Korgon, in Jalalabad. The city was one of the hotspots of a conflict that killed at least 200 and displaced at least 400,000, according to the BBC.
The former painter had, for many years, reported on legal corruption, prison rapes, and police brutality, eventually forming a human rights group Vozdukh (Air) and mediating between law enforcement and the community, the CPJ reported.
Askarov reported as an independent journalist on the 2010 unrest, in which numerous homes were burned. On the night of June 18, on hearing that a police officer had been killed, he rushed out to report on it, according to a CPJ 2012 special report.
Askarov — an ethnic Uzbek — was arrested and accused alongside three others of inciting the crowd to kill the police officer, who was Kyrgyz.
He was beaten numerous times in custody, and police threatened to rape his wife and daughter if he did not hand over his reporting, Askarov told the CPJ.
On June 18, security officials cited video evidence of the charges, which has never been seen publicly. “To this day, they have not shown it and cannot do so, because clearly my husband is not on that video,” wrote his wife Khadicha Askarova in an open letter to current president Sooronbay Sharipovich Jeenbekov.
The CPJ’s 2012 report, produced after a review of court documents and interviews with Askarov’s lawyers and defense witnesses, concluded the case was flawed and intended as police retribution for his years of reporting.
“I always obstructed their corrupt work,” Askarov was recorded as saying in the CPJ report. “They hated me.”
Askarova, who met her husband at art school in 1974, is only allowed two phone calls with him per year, and six prison visits. His health is deteriorating, she told the CPJ in 2019. At that time, he had hypotension and tachycardia, and now has painful joint condition osteochondritis, according to his wife.
“His health is deteriorating and causing more and more concern,” wrote Askarova in her letter to the president. “I bring him painkillers and medicinal herbs. He prepares infusions and is alone in his fights against his pain and ailments.”
The prison has denied him medication.
“What breaks my heart is to see how much he aged since being imprisoned,” Askarova told the CPJ. “He used to be a man full of energy and vigor. Now, he is old, sickly, skinny, and there’s no way out of this situation for him.”
Since his imprisonment, Kyrgyzstan’s ruling Social Democratic party has had three presidents. In October 2016, Askarov was re-tried, and by January 2017, his conviction was upheld. His first appeals was quashed, and his final appeal, due May 11, has been twice postponed this year.
Kyrgyzstan has reported 756 cases of the coronavirus and 8 deaths. As of April 13, 79 health workers were known to have been infected, and some were appealing for appropriate PPE, according to Eurasianet. The country is under strict lockdown.
In the context of the emergency, 68-year-old Askarov is at high risk of contracting the virus. A coalition of human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, wrote to President Jeenbekov in March highlighting their concern and requesting medical care for the journalist.
Insider is covering Askarov’s case in conjunction with The One Free Press Coalition, which raises awareness of the world’s persecuted journalists.
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