BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry has officially protested to the U.S. State Department over the latter's decision to honor jailed Kyrgyz human rights defender Azimjan Askarov with a prestigious award.
In a statement issued on July 15, the Kyrgyz side said the move "seriously damages" bilateral ties between the United States and one of Central Asia's more democratic post-Soviet republics.
It says that the "awarding of Askarov is considered a deliberate action against the strengthening of interethnic peace and harmony in our country."
Askarov is an ethnic Uzbek, a group that accounts for more than 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan's nearly 6 million people.
The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry complained that "the State Department's Award is being given to the wrong person."
The U.S. State Department announced on July 14 that Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski would present its 2014 Human Rights Defender Award to Askarov at the State Department on July 16.
Askarov's son Sherzod will accept the award on behalf of his father, who founded a group more than a decade ago to monitor alleged police brutality but has been in jail for more than four years on charges relating to deadly ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
The State Department described Askarov as "a uniting figure in the human rights community, bringing together people of all ethnicities and backgrounds to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to take effective action towards creating a sustainable peace between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz."
The Kyrgyz statement stressed that Askarov was convicted by Kyrgyz courts of inciting ethnic hatred, organizing mass disorder, and complicity in the murder of a law-enforcement officer during the violence, in Kyrgyzstan's southern regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad.
Bishkek also said that awarding Askarov the U.S. honor "would undermine the process of strengthening the unity of the people and harmony" in Kyrgyzstan.
The statement describes the State Department's decision as a "U.S. move with the use of an interethnic element that seriously damages bilateral ties."
Askarov, the leader of rights group Vozdukh (Air), was sentenced to life in prison after a court found him guilty of organizing the 2010 clashes and involvement in the murder of a police officer during the violence.
More than 450 people, mostly but not exclusively ethnic Uzbeks, were killed and tens or even hundreds of thousands more displaced by the unrest. Dozens of people are still missing.
The majority of those convicted for taking part in the deadly clashes have been ethnic Uzbeks.
Askarov insists he is innocent, calling his conviction an act of "retaliation" for his rights activism.