The Death of Azimjan Askarov and its Significance
At the age of 69, renowned Kyrgyzstan activist Azimjan Askarov died in prison of pneumonia July 25. He was also suffering from a heart condition as well as other chronic illnesses. His passing came after his health declined during his 10 years in prison and as his family increasingly worried about the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2012, Askarov had complained that his damp cell worsened his chronic breathing problem. Even as his death has caught the attention of the human rights community in Central Asia his funeral will take place only after a postmortem is conducted.
Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek citizen of Kyrgyzstan, was arrested June 15, 2010, after the deadly ethnic clashes in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Hundreds of people were killed, and the majority of the fatalities were Uzbek. Before his arrest, he led a human rights organization focused on prison conditions and treatment of detainees. On June 13, 2010, Askarov was charged with being involved with killing a police officer. After his arrest, Askarov was treated violently and sentenced to life in prison. It is widely believed that Askarov was not guilty of the crime and was singled out simply for being an ethnic Uzbek, which further raised his stature in the international human rights community. In 2015, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor announced Askarov a recipient of its 2014 Human Rights Defenders Award.
Before his death, Askarov’s detainment has been an increasing human rights concern and even urgency for various human rights organizations. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that Askarov had been “arbitrarily detained, held in inhuman conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense.” The Committee subsequently ordered Kyrgyz Authorities to immediately release Askarov. Although he was granted numerous appeal trials, his conviction was never overturned.
While Askarov in his lifetime did not gain justice, his death can still serve as a symbol in the fight to reform Kyrgyzstan’s judicial process. It is also a chance for the government to show its ethnic Uzbek citizens that they, too, have the right to a fair trial. Askarov repeatedly judged guilty shines a light on Kyrgyzstan’s history of police misconduct that occurs through unfair arrests and inhumane detainment conditions. Before his arrest, Askarov was active in bringing to light problems in what the authorities brought to trial. To atone for its past and to honor Azimjan Askarov, Kyrgyzstan should conduct an internal investigation into the practices of its law-enforcement bodies. A fairer judicial system would benefit all of its citizens. Furthermore, some form of accountability for past injustices and for the treatment of Askarov would make a difference and reassure both the people of Kyrgyzstan and the international community that the government of Kyrgyzstan is ready to make comprehensive improvements to its police system.