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Kyrgyz Court Rejects Last Appeal for Journalist Askarov

FILE - Uzbek journalist Azimjon Askarov, who has been jailed for life, looks through metal bars in a courtroom during hearings in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Oct. 11, 2016.

Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a life sentence for an ethnic Uzbek dissident and journalist convicted on charges including inciting inter-ethnic hatred.

Nearly 10 years after the initial conviction, the Bishkek-based court rejected an appeal from Azimjon Askarov, 69, in a case that many observers called politically motivated.

The Supreme Court initiated the hearings in February but postponed the decision to review his case, giving some of Askarov’s supporters hope that the journalist would receive leniency under new leadership in the former Soviet republic.

Those hopes were dashed when the court ruled that the appeal had been rejected.

According to Bishkek-based news website 24, Askarov's lawyer, Valerian Vakhitov, said the court had ignored recommendations from international organizations.

The Kyrgyz Embassy in Washington did not respond immediately to VOA’s email sent Wednesday requesting comment.

According to the Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Askarov was arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied adequate trial preparations and a courtroom interpreter. The U.N. body and other rights agencies say Azkarov has been denied medical attention throughout his incarceration.

Human rights award

During Askarov’s 2015 appeal in a lower court, Washington granted the journalist a human rights award, enraging Kyrgyzstan's then-president, Almazbek Atambayev, who responded by terminating a cooperation accord with the United States that has yet to be renewed.

An OHCHR review of the 2015 hearing culminated in demands to release the journalist or at least conduct a new trial “subject to the principles of fair hearings, presumption of innocence and other procedural safeguards.”

A well-known journalist and human rights defender, Askarov spent more than a decade documenting human rights violations by police and prison authorities in his hometown of Bazar-Korgon.

Askarov was convicted of organizing mass disturbances and stirring up ethnic hatred leading to the death of a policeman during clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, when more than 450 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, were killed.

International condemnation

International humanitarian and rights groups that have long pressed for his release were quick to condemn Wednesday’s decision.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision compounds 10 years of deep injustice inflicted on a brave human rights defender who should never have been jailed,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, in a prepared statement.

“The conviction of Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek wrongly imprisoned for his work documenting tragic ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, is a blatant example of the disproportionate prosecution of and unfair trials against Uzbeks after the violence.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described the decision as “brutal.” In a statement, Gulnoza Said, head of the nonprofit’s Europe and Central Asia program, said that by denying Askarov’s appeal, authorities showed they “still have not reckoned with the injustice of his imprisonment.”

Ahead of Wednesday's hearing, Human Rights Watch renewed calls for Askarov's release, citing a decline in his health related to cardiac and respiratory ailments, and the threat of contracting COVID-19, which disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying illnesses.

Kyrgyz rights activist Tolekan Ismailova, who recently visited Askarov in prison, said it was "heartbreaking to see him — at high risk due to his declining health and having endured torture — losing hope for a fair trial and release."

Some information for this report came from Reuters.