BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz court has reinstated a sentence of life imprisonment for rights defender Azimjan Askarov, sparking fresh international criticism of a case the jailed activist says is politically motivated.
The Chui Regional Court in Bishkek on January 24 again found Askarov guilty of stirring up ethnic hatred during deadly clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 2010 and of involvement in the murder of a policeman.
Court chairman Kidik Junushpaev said the court would "uphold the Jalalabad court's [guilty] verdict" and sentence originally made in September 2010.
Askarov, a 66-year-old ethnic Uzbek activist, said after the ruling was announced that he will begin a hunger strike in protest.
His lawyers said that they will appeal the court's decision to the Supreme Court.
Kyrgyz rights activist Tolekan Ismailova, who was part of Askarov's defense, called the court ruling "a political decision."
And the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the decision was "deeply troubling" and "highlights serious shortcomings in the country’s judicial system."
This latest trial vividly displayed the deficiencies in [Kyrgyzstan's] judicial and law-enforcement system."
In July, the Supreme Court voided Askarov's 2010 conviction and sent the case back to a lower court for review in light of "new circumstances that appeared in the case."
That ruling came after the UN Human Rights Committee urged Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov, saying that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured, and denied his right to a fair trial. It also claimed there were procedural irregularities during the criminal investigation of Askarov.
The court that conducted the new trial "clearly did not take into account the views of the UN Human Rights Committee," OHCHR spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement shortly after the decision was issued.
"Despite the repeated commitment of the Kyrgyz authorities to uphold international fair trial standards and to resolutely investigate torture allegations, this latest trial vividly displayed the deficiencies in the country’s judicial and law-enforcement system," the statement said.
"The court did not pursue allegations that Askarov had been tortured," it said, adding that it also "allegedly relied on the same witness testimonies as the sole source of evidence as in the first trial."
The OHCHR also voiced concern that "the repeated absence of a court-appointed interpreter put Askarov, a native Uzbek speaker, at a disadvantage as he was not comfortable in Kyrgyz."
The retrial of Askarov, who remained jailed throughout and who says the case against him was politically motivated for his work in exposing rights violations among police and prison officials, started on October 4.
Human rights organizations had long demanded a retrial for Askarov, and the issue has been mentioned to President Almazbek Atambaev at various international meetings.
The U.S. State Department awarded Askarov its Human Rights Defender Award in 2015, causing Kyrgyzstan to cancel its bilateral cooperation agreement with Washington.
More than 450 people were killed -- most of them ethnic Uzbeks -- and tens of thousands of people fled their homes when ethnic violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan shortly after the ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010.
With reporting by AP and Interfax