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HRW Urges 'Thorough' Probe On Anniversary Of Kyrgyz Rights Defender's Death In Custody

Azimjon Askarov in a Bishkek courtroom in 2017.

The U.S.-based watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) on July 8 repeated its call for a "thorough, independent" investigation into the death in custody one year ago of Kyrgyz rights activist Azimjon Askarov after prison authorities concluded that he had died of COVID-19 complications and wasn't mistreated.

Askarov's case has been described by UN officials as "a stain" on the post-Soviet Central Asian country's rights record.

“COVID-19-related complications may have been a factor in how Askarov died, but what really led to Askarov’s death was his wrongful imprisonment for 10 years, as well as the Kyrgyz authorities’ sustained negligence and denial of adequate medical care,” HRW quoted its Central Asia researcher, Syinat Sultanalieva, as saying.

“The authorities have an obligation to conduct an effective -- meaning genuinely independent -- investigation into all the circumstances of his death and to hold accountable those responsible for the decisions and actions that contributed to them.”

Askarov died in a Kyrgyz prison in July 2020 of what was initially listed as respiratory problems.

His lawyer said the activist had shown symptoms of COVID-19 before his death.

Askarov had been convicted of creating a mass disturbance and involvement in the murder of a police officer during deadly ethnic clashes between local Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad in 2010.

During Askarov's 10 years in custody, appeals had been lodged on his behalf by international and domestic rights organizations, the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Union, and individual governments who all pointed out violations of Askarov’s rights from the time he was detained until his death.

The Kyrgyz State Penitentiary Service's own investigators concluded in May after a 10-month process that in light of the challenging epidemiological situation at the time, there was no "body of crime" and no one should be held responsible for his death, HRW said.

It cited a copy of the report that was provided to the Bir Duino group representing Askarov's widow.

The group said Kyrgyz prison service investigators failed to interview key witnesses and muzzled Bir Duino with a nondisclosure agreement.

Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called Askarov’s death “a stain on the human rights record” of the Kyrgyz government.

A Bishkek city court in August upheld a lower-court verdict that the Kyrgyz government didn't violate Askarov's rights.

Ahead of a trip to Central Asia by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in November, HRW pressed the European Union to exert pressure for a "genuinely independent inquiry" into Askarov's death.

It also urged Brussels to make clear that greater support for Central Asia is tied to “genuine” human rights reforms.

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