BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court has upheld the life sentence of ethnic Uzbek human rights activist Azimjon Askarov, despite calls by domestic and international rights groups for his release.
The Sweden-based group Civil Rights Defenders swiftly condemned the May 13 ruling and called on President Sooronbai Jeenbekov to "intervene and free [Askarov] immediately."
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director, said the court decision "compounds 10 years of deep injustice inflicted on a brave human rights defender who should never have been jailed."
The activist, who turns 69 this month, has been behind bars for nearly 10 years on what human rights and media-freedom watchdogs described as trumped-up charges.
The Supreme Court initially began the appeal hearing in February, but quickly adjourned to have more time to get acquainted with new materials in the case.
Ahead of the court ruling, Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the activist's release, saying his health had dramatically deteriorated.
The New York-based watchdog said Askarov "suffers from cardiac and respiratory conditions and has not received appropriate medical attention in prison," and warned that he was at high risk of contracting COVID-19, which disproportionately affects older people and those 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, as 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.
Struthers said Askarov's conviction "is a blatant example of the disproportionate prosecution of and unfair trials against Uzbeks after the violence."
The UN Human Rights Committee has found that Askarov was arbitrarily detained, denied a fair trial, and tortured, and ruled that he should be released immediately and his conviction quashed.
However, Askarov’s conviction was upheld after several previous appeals in lower courts.