Right groups have condemned a life sentence handed down in Kyrgyzstan to an ethnic Uzbek rights activist found guilty of involvement in the killing of a Kyrgyz policeman.
Critics say the trial of Azimjon Askarov and seven other defendants, all of them ethnic Uzbeks, was unfair and marred by violence.
All eight were found guilty on September 15 of killing a policeman during ethnically charged clashes in the southern Kyrgyz village of Bazar-Korgon in June.
Askarov was also found guilty of other charges, including inciting ethnic hatred, organizing mass disturbances, and the attempted abduction of hostages.
All defendants, including one woman, pleaded not guilty, some reversing their initial guilty pleas. Four of Askarov's co-defendants were also sentenced to life imprisonment with confiscation of their property, two others were sentenced to 20 years in jail, and one person was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Human rights observers, including Kyrgyzstan's rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, say the court case against Askarov was unfair and "fabricated."
Akun said his office had held an alternative investigation into the killing of the policeman and concluded that Askarov is not guilty.
Akun said his colleagues were present at all the court sessions and that they found the trial to be unfair and the charges politically motivated.
Askarov is the head of the local human rights group Vozdukh (Air), and his work over many years has focused on prison conditions and police treatment of detainees.
He had reportedly been documenting the killings and arson attacks that mostly targeted ethnic Uzbeks during the violence that struck southern Kyrgyzstan in June.Difficulty Of Defense
Andrea Huber of the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International said the charges were fabricated to target Askarov for his "legitimate work as a human rights defender and he must be released immediately."
"There was an unfair trial, he was subjected to beatings, his lawyers and relatives have been harassed and attacked," Huber said. "The sentence is really [outrageous]. In all of those contexts, the confiscation of property is unheard of. There is no legal basis for that whatsoever."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Kyrgyzstan to revoke the verdict against Askarov.
HRW cited authorities' failure to guarantee the safety of the defendants' lawyers and relatives against harassment and attacks by the victim's family.
"The trial should have been about justice but instead it played out like vengeance," HRW Central Asia researcher Andrea Berg said.
"There were a lot of violations of rights in this case," Askarov's lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, said. "First of all, Askarov was not allowed to meet with his lawyers to discuss his point of view. During the trial there were no witnesses from the defense side, there were only witnesses for the prosecution. I have four-to-five witnesses, too, and [rights activist] Aziza Abdyrasulova was one of them. But when I said I wanted to call her to the trial, [the victim's relatives] told me openly, 'If your Aziza comes here, she won't leave this place alive.'"
Adding her voice to the criticism today, Abdyrasulova -- of the Kyrgyz nongovernmental group Kylym Shamy
(Torch of the Century) -- told journalists that Askarov had actually tried to prevent the deadly ethnic clashes.
She said she was present at one meeting between Askarov and interim government official Ismail Isakov in May where Askarov warned him about possible provocations that might spark violence.
She said, "Now, the person who risked his safety and life to prevent the ethnic clashes is found guilty of organizing the ethnic clashes. That is ridiculous."
There have also been fears that Askarov might have been beaten up in custody, prompted by a photo his lawyers took which shows his back badly bruised.
However, speaking in front of the victims' angry relatives in court, the 60-year-old frail-looking defendant rejected allegations of mistreatment by police.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said it was "particularly disturbed by the reported incidents of torture of Askarov in detention and pressure on his defense lawyer." The group called for new, open, and fair trials for all suspects.Ethnic Issue
Askarov and his fellow defendants' trial was a part of Kyrgyzstan's ongoing probe into the ethnic violence in southern Jalal-Abad and Osh provinces, which killed some 400 people and forced some 400,000 from their homes.
Kyrgyz authorities have rejected criticism that they have been singling out ethnic Uzbeks in the investigation. Authorities say some 240 cases in connection with serious crimes committed during the violence will be sent to court.
They have declined to comment about the ethnic background of the suspects, saying all are citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Three cases have gone to trial so far and in each case all the defendants have been ethnic Uzbeks.
Toktakunov said he will appeal the verdict and that he will demand the appeal court hearing take place in Bishkek -- because, he said, trials in the south have taken place amid an atmosphere of pressure and threats.written by Farangis Najibullah based on RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service and agency reports