Fears for safety of Uzbek activist detained amid Kyrgyzstan violence

Amnesty International has called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to release an ethnic Uzbek human rights activist whose life is believed to be in danger after he was arrested while gathering evidence of abuses committed during violence in the south of the country this week.Azimzhan Askarov is said to have filmed and photographed some of the violence, killings and arson attacks on mostly Uzbek homes and other buildings in the village of Bazar Korgan by groups of armed men.According to local human rights defenders, Azimzhan Askarov is being subjected to prolonged daily beatings from security officials while in detention to force him to disclose the location of his film clips and video camera. They believe he may not survive for much longer.”Azimzhan Askarov has been targeted for his legitimate activities as a human rights defender. He is a prisoner of conscience and as such he should be released immediately,” said Maisy Weicherding, Amnesty International’s expert on Central Asia.He was arrested by security forces on Tuesday in Bazar Korgan, in the Jalal-Abad region of Kyrgyzstan and is being held in a pre-charge detention centre. He has been accused of organizing mass disorder during the violence.Azimzhan Askarov is the director of the human rights organization Vozdukh (Air) which forms part of a regional human rights network in southern Kyrgyzstan.He has been documenting police ill-treatment in detention in Bazar Korgan and other parts of the Jalal-Abad region for years and is well-known for his human rights work.In one particular incident over the past week, Azimzhan Askarov is said to have filmed rioters firing on unarmed people who were approaching them to negotiate. Armed police officers present did nothing to prevent the violence.”The Kyrgyzstani authorities must allow human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society activists to carry out their work without the threat of harassment or obstruction,” said Maisy Weicherding.”They must also conduct a thorough and independent investigation into allegations that Azimzhan Askarov has been tortured while in detention.”On the day of Azimzhan Askarov’s arrest, a group of men in masks, who said that they were from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, went to his home and asked his wife to open the door and give them her husband’s video and camera equipment.She refused and the men reportedly started to fire their guns in the air and then broke down the door. Azimzhan Askarov’s wife managed to flee and hide in a neighbour’s house as the masked men ransacked the house. At mid-day on Thursday, another group of armed men reportedly conducted another search of Azimzhan Askarov’s house and seized several disks and cartridges.The activist’s brother, who was detained at the same time and shared a cell with him, was released on Thursday. Azimzhan Askarov has been allocated a state lawyer but an independent lawyer who was assigned to represent him by a local human rights organization has been denied access. He also has no access to medical care, his family are not allowed to visit, and the authorities have refused to accept food parcels from them.The deadly violence which has devastated large parts of the south of Kyrgyzstan is said to have started on 10 June with clashes between rival gangs of mostly Kyrgyz and Uzbek youths which rapidly escalated into large-scale arson, looting and violent attacks, including killings, on mainly Uzbek-populated districts in Osh. Subsequently, the violence spread to the city of Jalal-Abad and surrounding towns and villages. The south of Kyrgyzstan is home to a large ethnic Uzbek community and was the power base of former president Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was overthrown in April after a violent confrontation between government and opposition supporters. While the cause of the clashes is unclear, the interim government has blamed the violence on supporters of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev and on organized criminal groups intent on destabilizing the situation in the country ahead of a referendum on a new constitution on 27 June.On 15 June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the violence appeared to be “orchestrated, targeted and well-planned” and that it was set off by five simultaneous attacks by armed masked men in the city of Osh.On 17 June the UN estimated that the number of displaced people, the majority of whom are Uzbek, has reached 400,000. Unconfirmed figures suggest that over 2,500 have been killed since 10 June.