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Azimjon Askarov appears in court in Bishkek in October 2016.

On May 13, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court is set to hold its final hearing in the appeal of ethnic Uzbek human rights activist Azimjan Askarov against his life sentence.

Askarov, who also contributed to independent news websites, has been behind bars for nearly 10 years on what human rights and media-freedom watchdogs described as trumped-up charges.

Askarov, who turns 69 this month, has insisted that his case is politically motivated.

Ahead of the Supreme Court hearing, human rights defenders reiterated their calls for the activist's release, saying his health has dramatically deteriorated.

Human Rights Watch said Askarov "suffers from cardiac and respiratory conditions and has not received appropriate medical attention in prison," and warned that the inmate was at high risk of contracting COVID-19, a disease that disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying illnesses.

"There is also one more compelling reason: It is the right and just thing to do," the New York-based watchdog added, saying Askarov was sentenced to life following "a deeply flawed trial and credible allegations of torture which were never investigated."

Prominent Kyrgyz rights activist Tolekan Ismailova said it was "heartbreaking to see him -- at high risk due to his declining health and having endured torture -- losing hope for a fair trial and release."

In 2010, a Kyrgyz court sentenced Askarov to life in prison after finding him guilty of creating a mass disturbance and involvement in the murder of a police officer during deadly ethnic clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.

More than 450 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, were killed and tens of thousands more were displaced during the violence.

The UN Human Rights Committee has found that Askarov was arbitrarily detained, denied a fair trial, and tortured, and ruled the activist should be released immediately and his conviction quashed.

However, Askarov’s conviction was upheld after several appeals.

For Russia's business elite, Vedomosti has long been a solid, unflashy chronicler of the ups and downs of the country's economic cycles.

A specter is haunting Vedomosti, threatening to undermine the independence of one of Russia's most respected business newspapers, at a time when Russian media is under pressure from the Kremlin.

Russia's biggest oil company may be behind it.

A joint investigation published on May 12 by reporters from Vedomosti and three other media outlets concluded that after a series of murky transactions that began around 2014, the newspaper's debts now appear to be held by a bank owned by Rosneft, potentially endangering the paper's reputation.

The state-controlled oil company is headed by a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin, Igor Sechin.

A Rosneft spokesman dismissed suggestions that Sechin or the company were involved in the appointment of a new editor in chief who took the helm in March and has been at the center of several clashes with the paper's editorial staff.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on May 12.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on May 12.

But the detailed report added to concerns that burst into the open in March, when the paper announced a tentative sale to a company whose owners included the owner of a pro-Kremlin newspaper called Nasha Versia, along with a businessman who used to work for the now-defunct oil company Yukos.

'Difficult To Acquire, Easy To Lose'

For Russia's business elite, Vedomosti, a broadsheet born in the late 1990s in a joint venture that included the publishers of the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, has long been a solid, unflashy chronicler of the ups and downs of the country's economic cycles.

The paper has largely eschewed Kremlin intrigue and soap operas over the years, preferring to stick largely to a diet of business news. The result has been a newspaper widely admired for its solid reporting and independence.

Days after the paper's reported sale, the new owners announced that the new chief editor would be Andrei Shmarov, who founded a Kremlin-friendly magazine called Ekspert in the 1990s and later was CEO of the online publication Snob.

His hiring prompted public criticism from five top editors.

On April 13, a column that was published on the paper's website was abruptly removed. The author, Konstantin Sonin, confirmed the deletion of the column, which was critical of Rosneft's management, in particular its strategic investments in Venezuela.

Nine days later, the paper's media editor, Ksenia Boletskaya, said in a post to Facebook that editors had been ordered by management to stop publishing opinion polls conducted by Russia's largest independent survey company, Levada Center.

The center's polls have documented declines in Putin's approval rating and in how much the Russian people trust him.

Boletskaya wrote that Shmarov said that the presidential administration did not want to see Levada's surveys published by Vedomosti anymore, and suggested the paper's future depended on that not happening.

Boletskaya also wrote that Shmarov had threatened to fire staffers if they wrote articles that were critical of the constitutional amendments backed by Putin. The amendments, which were supposed to have been voted on in a national vote on April 22, would pave the way for Putin to remain president until 2036.

"It is trust, which takes years to build, that determines the quality of an independent publication," an editorial published on the paper's website on April 23 said. "This kind of quality is probably not necessary for subordinate and propaganda media, but for independent media, it is vital. This is social capital that is difficult to acquire and easy to lose."

The article was bylined "Vedomosti's editorial staff."

Ownership Laws

Vedomosti's founders, which also included a Finnish company behind the English-language Moscow Times, sold their stake in the company around 2014, when a new law went into effect restricting foreign ownership of Russian media.

The company that bought a controlling stake was entrepreneur Demyan Kudryavtsev, who used to be the general director of another Russian newspaper, Kommersant.

Demyan Kudryavtsev (file photo)
Demyan Kudryavtsev (file photo)

As part of Kudryavtsev's acquisition, a business partner took on the paper's sizable debts, according to the Vedomosti investigation, done in cooperation with Forbes magazine and the online news sites The Bell and Meduza. The debts were estimated at around 6.7 million euros ($7 million) at the time.

Kudryavtsev later said in an interview that he had also borrowed money for the sale from businessman Dmitry Bosov, a tycoon who had Kremlin connections and a partner from other ventures. Bosov was found dead in his Moscow region home on May 6; police said they believed he committed suicide.

Vedomosti's debts were eventually acquired by a company owned in part by Kudryavtsev's wife and one of Kudryavtsev's longtime business partners. That company, Arkan Investment, later sold the debt to another company, Konstanta.

Konstanta, according to the joint investigation, financed the purchase with a loan from the Russian Regional Development Bank, a Rosneft-owned financial institution. Konstanta is also affiliated with several of Bosov's companies.

According to the investigation, Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontyev was deeply involved in the decision to appoint Shmarov as chief editor, and the Kremlin had specifically approved of the decision.

Contacted by The Bell for comment, Leontyev dismissed the allegation that he was involved in installing Shmarov as chief editor. "Leave me alone. That's just trash," he was quoted as saying.

He did not appear to comment on questions regarding the paper's debt structure.

Sechin has made no public comment on the Vedomosti controversy or the speculation that he, his company, or his allies might be making a move to take control of the newspaper.

A longtime acquaintance and confidant who served as Putin's deputy chief of staff during his first two terms in 2000-08, Sechin has turned Rosneft into the county's biggest oil company -- mainly, critics say, by absorbing profitable assets of other companies such as Yukos, often under coercive terms.

He has also put Rosneft’s assets and investments into the service of the Kremlin's foreign policy goals in places like Venezuela and Iraq.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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