BISHKEK -- The Kyrgyz Supreme Court has overturned a life sentence against activist Azimjon Askarov but ordered a retrial over allegations that the now-65-year-old ethnic Uzbek fomented violence during deadly clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan six years ago.
Anything less than Askarov's unconditional release was likely to disappoint United Nations and local and international rights groups denouncing his treatment and clamoring for him to be freed, and one early reaction suggested Kyrgyz authorities had "missed [an] opportunity."
Askarov was convicted in 2011 of stirring up ethnic hatred and of involvement in the killing of an ethnic Kyrgyz police officer during the unrest, which deeply scarred relations between majority Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in the Central Asian country of almost 6 million people.
The Bishkek-based court ruled on July 12 that the case should be heard by the Chui Oblast Court, near the capital.
Askarov, who has consistently said his prosecution is politically motivated and was not present in court, will remain in custody in the Chui prison where he has been serving his sentence during the retrial period.
His lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, said the conviction of his client were based on a confession obtained under duress and ethnic prejudice.
One of the international rights groups closely following the case called the failure to release Askarov a blow to the country's rights image and vowed to continue to press for his freedom.
"It's a missed opportunity for Kyrgyzstan to do the right thing by finally releasing a man who should never have been jailed in the first place. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court ignores Kyrgyzstan's obligations under international human rights law," Amnesty International quoted its senior director for research, Anna Neistat, who was at the first day of the review, as saying after the decision.
"Azimjan Askarov was repeatedly beaten, abused, and denied medical treatment before his trial in 2010 and since, and the charges against him were fabricated and politically motivated," she continued. "We will continue to campaign for his immediate and unconditional release."
The Supreme Court review was ordered in light of "new circumstances that appeared in the case" and with calls mounting for the politically charged case to be dropped.
The hearing in Bishkek began on July 11 with rights activists and journalists packing the courtroom, but was quickly postponed by a day.
Relatives of some of the victims of the ethnic violence that killed more than 450 people and displaced tens or hundreds of thousands of residents were present for the high court's decision.
The wife of the slain policeman accused rights activists and international organizations of taking Askarov's side and forgetting about the victims. In an emotional speech in court, Chinara Bechelova said the judiciary was under considerable pressure in the case.
Some relatives expressed their anger at the court's decision and hectored Askarov's defense team and rights activists.
Prominent Kyrgyz activist Tolekan Ismailova tweeted that "The slain policeman's sister threatened to burn Askarov if he is freed."
In another tweet, Ismailova said the court’s decision provided "rays of hope."
UN experts have urged Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov, a call joined by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
In April, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said UN experts found that Askarov "had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense."
Amnesty International considers Askarov a prisoner of conscience.
Tweeting from the courtroom, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), wrote that many were "wondering/hoping" if the timing of the hearing was connected to an official visit to Kyrgyzstan by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, due in Bishkek on July 13.
Most of the hundreds of dead during the storm of ethnic violence that struck the southern Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces in the summer of 2010 were ethnic Uzbeks.
Askarov, who lived in his native district of Bazar-Korgon in Jalal-Abad Province before his arrest, was known as an amateur artist and activist.
In 2002, he set up the Vozdukh (Air) NGO to monitor prison conditions for inmates.