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Human rights defender continues his struggle from behind bars in Kyrgyzstan

By Maisy Weicherding, Central Asia Researcher at Amnesty International

Five years ago I was first introduced to Azimzhan Askarov, a gentle and unassuming man in his fifties, in the chaotic and friendly offices of the human rights organization Spravedlivost (Justice) in the town of Jalal-Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Azimzhan was assisting the organization’s small team of human rights defenders, serving as their legal adviser and occasionally editing their bulletin.

I had been looking forward with some trepidation to meeting him, because I had been told about his tremendous courage and his formidable tenacity in defending the rights of women and men who had been abused, ill-treated and tortured in police custody. I also knew that he had hidden dozens of refugees who fled across the border from neighbouring Uzbekistan after a mass killing of demonstrators in the city of Andizhan in 2005 and that he had gone to great lengths to make sure that they had access to protection in Kyrgyzstan.

It was a joy to finally meet Azimzhan in person. He was funny, full of stories, compassionate and committed. He told me how he had given up his vocation and his life as a painter to retrain as a lawyer and become a human rights defender because he was so outraged by the local security forces’ brutality and the injustice of local authorities. But he still loved to tend his garden and make the most of the few quiet moments he had with his wife and his sons.

Yesterday I met Azimzhan again, sadly in very different circumstances and with a very different kind of trepidation.

A year ago to the day, on 15 June 2010, this brave man was detained by the local police in Bazar-Korgan, his hometown. He was taken to the station, where he was savagely beaten and ill-treated for three days.

They accused him of having incited a crowd of angry men and women, all ethnic Uzbeks from Bazar-Korgan, to kill one of their fellow police officers, an ethnic Kyrgyz, in the street during four days of violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Azimzhan has been in detention since that fatal day last June; after spending several long months in intolerable conditions in police custody in Bazar-Korgan, he was held in a pre-trial detention centre in Jalal-Abad during his trial. After he collapsed in court and nearly died following his appeal hearing in November, he was transferred swiftly to the only prison medical facility in Kyrgyzstan, in the capital Bishkek. It was there that I met him again.

Zhenia, a young lawyer and human rights defender from Bishkek, accompanied me and expertly navigated us around and over the bureaucratic hurdles to get signatures, stamps, permits, and yet more signatures and small slips of paper so that we could get through the gates of the prison hospital. This is supposed to be one of the best – if not the best – of Kyrgyzstan’s prison facilities, and Azimzhan told me that he had been allowed to turn his cell into a small office, that prison staff treated him with respect, that he was given medical treatment, and is allowed to receive visitors and parcels from his family.

And yet the buildings, with their whitewashed chalk walls and corrugated rusting roofs, are literally crumbling. The staircase – or should I say rickety metal ladder – was covered in dust and plaster, which had come off the walls and ceilings, mortar and wood chippings. There were gaping holes in the old, creaky floorboards. One of the officers sat behind a tiny metal table in an old armchair covered with dirty blankets while a soap opera played on old television set. This was, I later realized, the reception!

Inside wasn’t covered in dust and debris, but it was still ramshackle. Even the furniture and fixtures in the prison director’s office where we met Azimzhan had seen much better days. When Azimzhan was finally escorted into the room, I was relieved to see that he had put on some weight and wasn’t just skin and bones like he had been during his time in police custody. He hugged Zhenia and me and then we sat across from each other at the long tired conference table. The prison director mostly left us to our conversation, even leaving the room on several occasions, so that we had almost a private meeting, but we were still guarded in what we said.

Azimzhan, whom I remembered as gentle and humorous with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, is angry and bitter. The sparkle has gone, although I thought (or maybe I hoped) I saw it briefly when he showed me his most recent drawings and he joked that he was getting fed up with doing his self-portraits.

He is angry because the prosecution and the courts have ignored evidence proving that he was not present at the murder of the policeman; angry that they have refused to listen to defence witnesses or investigate his allegations of torture.

He is angry because the courts have sentenced him to life imprisonment and he cannot begin to and does not want to envisage spending the rest of his life behind prison walls - not even the crumbling whitewashed walls of the prison hospital facility, let alone the bleak walls of a prison in the south of the country.

“I never thought that I would celebrate my 60th birthday behind bars, that in my old age I would become so intimate with the inside of prison cells,” he told me, “I shouldn’t be here”. “They’ve taken most everything that was dear to me and my wife,” he continued. “They’ve ransacked our lovely home and destroyed our garden, they took away the bags of rice we had bought in preparation for my youngest son’s wedding, they took all the jars of homemade fruit jam, pickled foods, the cakes we had baked, everything… They burned down my office. They beat my brother so badly that he is now disabled, my wife is ill, my sons mostly in hiding.  They have destroyed us.”

But he has not entirely given up hope and that old ferocious tenacity is still there. He is determined to continue to fight for justice and to prove his innocence. He is continually looking for ways of leading his campaign for freedom from inside his prison cell and we are very much part of his campaign.