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UN Expert: Kyrgyz Activist's Death In Custody Shows 'Cruel Disregard' For Human Rights

Rights activist Azimjan Askarov died in a Bishkek prison hospital on July 25.
Rights activist Azimjan Askarov died in a Bishkek prison hospital on July 25.

A UN human rights expert says the recent death of an ethnic Uzbek rights defender, Azimjan Askarov, while in Kyrgyz custody shows a "cruel disregard" for human rights in the Central Asian country.

In a statement on July 30, 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 government of Kyrgyzstan.

Askarov, a 69-year-old activist who also contributed to independent news websites, died in a Bishkek prison hospital on July 25 of what Kyrgyz officials described as pneumonia.

For 10 years he had unsuccessfully challenged his life sentence that he and his supporters rejected as politically motivated.

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

In her statement, Lawlor criticized the Kyrgyz government for ignoring "multiple requests" for Askarov’s early release on humanitarian grounds "as his health deteriorated significantly in prison."

"We learned in June that, in the midst of COVID-19, and despite his age and pre-existing conditions, Mr. Askarov did not qualify for early release under Kyrgyz law," Lawlor said. "I now question whether more could have been done to protect his health."

In the days before Askarov’s death, his lawyer made a number of urgent medical appeals to Kyrgyz authorities after he reportedly fell ill with a cough, fever, aches and pains, and had difficulty eating and walking.

Askarov was transferred to a prison hospital on July 24, when he had already been sick for 10 days. He died the following day.

In May, Human Rights Watch said Askarov suffered from cardiac and respiratory conditions and has not received "appropriate medical attention in prison." It also warned that he was at high risk of contracting COVID-19, a disease caused by the coronavirus that disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying illnesses.

Lawlor said that Askarov’s case "should act as a reminder to all states of the serious and grave threat that prisoners in at-risk categories face" during the coronavirus pandemic.

She urged governments around the world to release jailed human rights defenders and all those detained without sufficient legal basis.

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

However, Askarov's conviction was upheld by Kyrgyz courts after several appeals.

More than 450 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, were killed and tens of thousands more were displaced during the ethnic violence that erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.

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