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Kyrgyz Judge Defends Conviction Of Ethnic Uzbek Rights Defender

BISHKEK -- The lead judge in the case that led to ethnic Uzbek rights activist Azimjan Askarov being sentenced to life in prison in Kyrgyzstan denies that the charges were politically motivated and says one of the co-defendants testified against Askarov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports.

Askarov and seven other ethnic Uzbeks were found guilty on September 15 of murdering policeman Myktybek Sulaimanov and organizing ethnic clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the village of Bazar-Korgon on June 12-13.

Five of the defendants, including Askarov, were sentenced to life in prison and the confiscation of their property. Two others who initially pleaded guilty but later changed their pleas were sentenced to 20 years in jail, and one person was sentenced to nine years in prison.

The case against Askarov has been criticized by some Kyrgyz officials as well as by outside observers for the manner in which the trial was held as well as the harsh sentence.

But the judge who chaired Askarov's trial, Nurgazy Alimkulov, told RFE/RL on September 17 that all claims that the case against Askarov was politically motivated are baseless. He said Askarov's guilt was proven both by investigators who worked on the case and by testimony given in court by witnesses, including a bodyguard, and one of Askarov's co-defendants.

He said that on June 12 "Askarov arrived at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border near Seidykum village, where ethnic Uzbeks had gathered intending to cross the border in order to escape the clashes."

Alimkulov then says Askarov "called on [ethnic Uzbeks] to take the governor hostage" after a district governor arrived trying to urge people not to flee.

Alimkulov said Askarov then returned to an area called Bazar-Korgon and helped organize ethnic clashes there. He said evidence showed that Askarov used a tractor trailer to "call on local ethnic Uzbeks to resist Kyrgyz" and to "fight, provoking clashes and mass disturbances."

Askarov's lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, told journalists in Bishkek on September 16 that there were numerous procedural violations during Askarov's trial.

Toktakunov said he was not allowed to meet with his client on a regular basis and the defendants' witnesses were not given the floor during the trial. He added that the defendants' lawyers were under constant pressure and received threats from the slain policeman's relatives and supporters.

Chinara Bechelova, the policeman's widow, told RFE/RL on September 17 that she and her relatives did not threaten Toktakunov, they were just overly emotional after hearing the details of her husband's death.

"Look, my husband was severely beaten, completely smashed [to the ground]. Then they poured gasoline on his body. At the trial they testified that [my husband] was still alive and moving when they set him on fire. When we heard that we could not control ourselves and just wanted to ask the lawyer how he could defend such people," Bechelova said. "We shouted at him, since we're only human. If he had just calmly explained to us that he was doing his job as a lawyer, we would have calmed down, of course. But he started panicking and shouting that he is being killed. After he panicked the situation got worse."

Aziza Abdrasulova, the chairwoman of the Bishkek-based human rights organization Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century), stated on September 16 that Askarov was a key individual in trying to prevent the deadly clashes between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Abdrasulova said that in May, Askarov warned officials in the Kyrgyz interim government about possible provocations that could lead to an ethnic conflict in the Osh and Jalal-Abad oblasts.

Abdrasulova said she was present at a late-May meeting between Askarov and the interim government's representative in the south, General Ismail Isakov, in which Askarov provided Isakov with information regarding the possible outbreak of interethnic violence in the region.

"Now, the person who risked his safety and life to prevent the ethnic clashes has been found guilty of organizing the ethnic clashes, and that is ridiculous," Abdrasulova told journalists.

Isakov has not commented on Abdrasulova's comments.

Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Marat Imankulov told RFE/RL on September 17 that he never heard about Askarov's involvement in attempts to prevent the clashes. He said he was surprised by Abdrasulova's statement.

"As for Aziza Abdrasulova's statement, I have never heard that before, frankly. When Askarov gave [such information] was it an oral statement or a written one? I have never seen anything like that in any reports on my desk," Imankulov said. "Also at that time I was not in this post, I was working in Moscow. If that sort of data was provided [by Askarov] it surely should be discussed at the Security Council and proper conclusions should be made."

Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun told RFE/RL after the verdict against Askarov was announced that his office had conducted an alternative investigation into Sulaimanov's killing and came to the conclusion that Askarov is not guilty.