2014 Human Rights Defender Award Ceremony for Azimjon Askarov
2014 Human Rights Defender Award Ceremony for Azimjon Askarov

Azimjon Askarov, a journalist and human rights activist serving a life sentence in Kyrgyzstan that was widely condemned as unjust by the United Nations and international community, has died in jail.  

The 69-year-old was convicted in 2010 of inciting disorder and complicity in the murder of a policeman, allegations he denied. 

He was "unable to walk" due to an illness, his lawyer Valeryan Vakhitov told Agence France-Presse by telephone Saturday, after visiting the journalist this week.

"No one paid him any attention. The system killed him," Vakhitov said. 

Kyrgyzstan's state penitentiary service said Askarov died Saturday after he was hospitalized with pneumonia.  

Vakhitov told VOA that when he last saw Askarov, the journalist was in critical condition and unable to walk without assistance.  

The journalist’s wife, Khadicha Askarova, told VOA on July 24 that Askarov had not been in good health for some time, but his family had not seen him since the pandemic. 

Askarov was jailed in June 2010, following clashes in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad between ethnic Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks that killed around 470 people, the Associated Press reported.  

As well as covering the unrest, the then director of a local rights group “Vozdukh” (“Air”) and freelance journalist documented police brutality and prison conditions. 

A U.N. Human Rights Committee investigation into his trial and conviction in 2016 found Askarov was arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and called for Kyrgyz authorities to immediately release the journalist.

A retrial earlier this year upheld the conviction and life sentence.    

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The journalist’s lawyer said after the retrial that Askarov's sentence was illegal and unfair. 

"Through Askarov’s destiny, we can see the fate of all those convicted in connection with the events in Osh. These are shortcomings in our punitive judiciary. If we say that the Supreme Court put an end to this case and ruled on it, I have expressed my opinion as a lawyer and I have the right to say so. The imprisonment of Azimjon Askarov is unfair,” Vakhitov said.  

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which repeatedly called for Askarov’s release, said in a statement, “Today, we grieve together with [Askarov’s] family and all who knew him.” 

“Together with many other observers of Askarov’s trials in 2010 and 2011, the Office repeatedly noted serious violations of fair trial standards and the failure of the authorities to address the intimidation of defense witnesses and lawyers or follow up on visible signs of torture,” the statement said. “It is unfortunate that the Kyrgyz authorities did not use the opportunity open to them to restore justice.” 

Davron Hotam, from VOA's Uzbek service, contributed to this report.

Some information for this report came from AP and AFP.