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UN Demands Probe Into Kyrgyz Activist Askarov's Death In Custody

Azimjan Askarov had been in prison for almost a decade. (file photo)
Azimjan Askarov had been in prison for almost a decade. (file photo)

The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into the death of an ethnic-Uzbek rights defender, Azimjan Askarov, while in Kyrgyz custody.

Askarov, a 69-year-old human rights activist died in a Bishkek prison hospital on July 25 of what Kyrgyz officials described as pneumonia.

"There should be a prompt, impartial, and effective investigation into his death," Elizabeth Throssel, a spokeswoman with the UN rights office, told journalists in Geneva on July 28, adding that his family had the right to redress under international human rights law.

Askarov, who also contributed to independent news websites, had been in prison for almost a decade after he was sentenced to life in prison for 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 .He and his supporters rejected the charges saying they were politically motivated.

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

Throssel said the UN rights office had urged Kyrgyz authorities in May to allow Askarov to leave prison since his health was frail, leaving him among the most-vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also reiterated a UN call for the Kyrgyz government to "consider an early humanitarian release of the most vulnerable prisoners" in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Authorities there, she stressed, had "repeatedly and publicly expressed their commitment to international human rights norms and standards, which also include obligations to ensure the right to health and the right to life."

Throssel said Askarov should not have been in prison in the first place.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the European External Action Service (EEAS) have expressed their regrets over Askarov's death, which came despite their numerous calls for his release on humanitarian grounds.

"It is important that the circumstances of his death, and the conditions in which he was held in the final months of his life, are clarified." the EEAS said.

"Just two months ago, ODIHR voiced regret over the decision of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court to uphold the life sentence imposed on Askarov in 2010. It is unfortunate that the Kyrgyz authorities did not use the opportunity open to them to restore justice." ODIHR added in a statement.

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

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.

With reporting by AFP and Interfax
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