HRD Azimjan Askarov dies in prison amid growing pressure on civil society and media

HRD Azimjan Askarov dies in prison amid growing pressure on civil society and media
Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov died prison on 25th July 2020 (Photo credit: Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan (BDK)).

Introduction

This is an update on developments concerningthe freedoms of association, assembly and expression in Kyrgyzstan from April to July 2020. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

A development that has attracted much attention was the tragic passing of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov in prison on 25th July 2020. Following reports about the alarming deterioration of his health, he was confirmed to have died of pneumonia, known as a serious complication of COVID-19. The news about Askarov’s passing was met with shock and dismay by civil society and the international community, who blamed the Kyrgyzstani authorities for failing to grant him access to appropriate medical assistance and to release him due to his worsening condition. Askarov had spent ten years behind bars, after being given a life sentence for his alleged involvement in the inter-ethnic violence that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The investigation and trial in his case were deeply flawed and Askarov’s defence continued to struggle for justice throughout his imprisonment. Most recently, in May 2020, the Supreme Court turned down a final appeal submitted by his defence and the following month a local court rejected a lawsuit he had filed against the government because of its failure to implement a 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision calling for his release and the quashing of his conviction.

Despite the COVID-19 emergency, a widely criticised draft law on NGOs advanced, withparliament passing it on second reading on 18th June 2020. At a public hearing held prior to this, NGO representatives critical of the law had little opportunity to make their voices heard as participation was seriously limited. The draft law increases an already heavy reporting burden for NGOs and there are fears that it might be used to put pressure on NGOs that work on issues that do not please the authorities. The consideration of the draft law is expected to continue after parliament’s summer break.

In another development seen as an example of growing pressure on civil society, activists Kamil Ruziev and Kalicha Umuralieva were singled out for criminal investigation under circumstances that suggested that they were targeted for their legitimate engagements against torture and corruption.

Assemblies were temporarily banned in the capital Bishkek and other regions as part of the emergency measures introduced in response to COVID-19. However, in practice, this ban was selectively enforced as some peaceful protests were dispersed, while others took place without inference by law enforcement authorities.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities have initiated measures that are problematic for freedom of expression. Following a speedy process, parliament adopted new legislation on “manipulation of information” in June 2020, despite serious objections being raised by media watchdogs. This legislation grants authorities powers to block access to allegedly false online information without a court decision. Its passing prompted a civil society campaign urging the president to veto the legislation, and in early August he sent it back to parliament for revision. Proposed amendments to anti-terrorism legislation, put forward by national security services, also gave rise to free speech concerns. In particular, critics fear that it may be used to ban media outlets that publish information later designated as “extremist” or “terrorist”, thus resulting in their closure even if they had no intent to promote such material.

In a worrying trend, current and former public officials continue to use the court system to put pressure on investigative media outlets and journalists by filing defamation lawsuits with excessive claims for damages. A high-profile defamation case against two leading independent media outlets, initiated by a former top customs official and his family members, was still pending in court. The claimants in this case are requesting close to 600,000 USD in damages because of a corruption investigation published last November which revealed systematic corruption within the country’s customs service.

In what appeared to be a deliberate arson attack, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the windows of the regional, independent “Third Channel” TV company on the morning of 7th June 2020, causing a fire and extensive damage to broadcasting equipment. Police opened an investigation into the incident, amid calls from the media community to promptly identify the perpetrators and send a message that such attacks cannot be perpetrated with impunity. Four men suspected of physically assaulting journalist Bolot Temirov in Bishkek in January 2020 went on trial, but those who ordered the attack are yet to be identified.

The authorities dropped a criminal case against a Facebook administrator charged under the broadly worded Criminal Code provision on inciting inter-regional hostility but pressed on with similar charges against an Instagram host. The prosecutor requested a six year prison sentence for the latter in June 2020, however the announcement of the verdict was postponed pending the outcome of a court-ordered expert assessment.

These developments are covered in more detail below.

Association

Criticised NGO law advances

As covered before on the Monitor, parliament adopted a new draft law on NGOs on first reading in March 2020, despite widespread criticism of this draft version by civil society. The draft law, proposed by a group of parliamentary deputies, introduces new reporting obligations for NGOs, with respect to their finances in particular. Civil society representatives have criticised the draft law for increasing an already heavy reporting burden for NGOs and for being discriminatory toward NGOs compared to other organisations. They also fear that it might be used as an instrument to put pressure on NGOs that work on issues that do not please the authorities.

Despite the COVID-19 emergency, the draft legislation advanced during the period covered by this update. On 22nd May 2020, a public hearing on the draft law was held in parliament, to which only 60 people were invited because of COVID-19 restrictions. Most of those invited were representatives of pro-government organisations and others who supported the adoption of the law, while only a few independent NGO activists critical of the law were allowed to participate. Thus, while the proposed law would directly affect NGOs, most NGO representatives did not have any opportunity to comment on it during the hearing.

In a joint appeal, 180 NGOs called on members of parliament to refrain from supporting the draft law, stating that its true purpose is to “discredit and demonise” organisations that challenge unfair laws and practices, corruption and other forms of injustice. The signatories stated that they “strongly protest” against the campaign to discredit NGOs, launched by the initiators of the draft law.

However, on 18th June 2020, the draft law passed its second reading, with 89 parliamentary deputies voting in favour of it, and only 10 against. At the end of June 2020, the parliament took a summer break, and thus the third reading of the draft law was postponed until autumn. In order for the law to come into effect it needs to pass three parliamentary readings and be signed by the president.

Criminal cases against activists

During the reporting period, national security services initiated criminal investigations against two activists under circumstances which suggest that the activists were targeted for their legitimate struggle against unlawful practices.

The security services detained Kamil Ruziev, who heads the NGO “Ventus”, in the city of Karakol on 29th May 2020 and informed him that he was being investigated on charges of forgery – a criminal offence that carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Two days later, a local court sanctioned the charges against Ruziev and ordered him to be placed under house arrest pending the trial in his case. On 19th June 2020, a regional court upheld this decision on appeal but replaced the house arrest with banning the activist from leaving his place of residence without permission. In a joint statement, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, Civil Rights Defenders, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the School of Law expressed concerns that the charges against Ruziev were brought in retaliation for his efforts to hold security service officials accountable for torture and for threats he has faced in relation to these efforts. The NGOs also raised concerns about the violation of due process in his case, in particular the fact that the security services were in charge of the investigation, which is contrary to national law and undermines the impartiality of the investigation. The NGOs called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to immediately drop the charges against Ruziev, protect him against persecution and investigate the complaints he has filed about human rights violations.

In another case, Kalicha Umuralieva, who previously lead the “Our right” NGO but was appointed as head of Bishkek’s city parks in 2019, was singled out for investigation on “commercial bribery” charges in a case that appeared related to her anti-corruption engagement. Security service officials searched Umuralieva’s office on 28th May 2020 and told her that an individual wishing to open a bike rental spot in one of the city parks had filed a complaint against her. According to Umuralieva, she had concluded a formal rental agreement with this individual, entailing a rental payment in advancefor the first two months,as part of an initiative to end a previous corrupt practice. She said that before she took over responsibility for the city parks, park spots were often let out informally to entrepreneurs, without any written agreement and with the payment being made to individual police and local government officials. If convicted of bribery, Umuralieva could face imprisonment.

HRD Azimjan Askarov tragically dies in prison 

As covered in the previous update, the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced concerns about the health and well-being of human rights defender (HRD) Azimjan Askarov, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for his alleged role in the inter-ethnic violence that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan that summer.

Both civil society and the international community called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to protect the defender’s health at this time and to urgently release him in light of his old age and his long-term health problems, which put him at increased risk of COVID-19.

In July 2020 reports indicated that 69-year-old Askarov’s health had deteriorated alarmingly. When Askarov’s lawyer, Valeryan Vakhitov visited him in prison on 22nd July 2020, Askarov wasunable to walk, had lost a lot of weight, had yellowish skin, was coughing and spoke with difficulty. Askarov said that he had not eaten anything for the past ten days and he had therefore been getting glucose injections. These reports prompted renewed calls to the Kyrgyzstani authorities to ensure that the defender had access to treatment and to release him. The Bir Duino Human Rights Movement, for which Askarov’s lawyer works, said that it would be “cruel and inhuman” to keep him in prison in this situation and called for his release on humanitarian grounds. Finally, on 24th July 2020, Askarov was transferred to a prison hospital for examination and treatment. However, this intervention came too late.

On the morning of 25th July 2020, Askarov tragically died in the prison hospital. According to the prison service, the defender died of pneumonia. As pneumonia is known as a serious complication of COVID-19, this gave rise to suspicion that he might have contracted COVID-19 while in prison. As late as the day before the defender’s passing, the prison service had insisted that the information about Askarov’s deteriorating health condition was incorrect and that he was “doing well”. The service also claimed that the defender had previously refused treatment and that he removed the mask of his oxygen concentrator just before his passing – an allegation that his lawyer believes is untrue. In accordance with his wishes, Askarov was buried in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent on 1st August 2020.

Civil society and the international community responded to the news about Askarov’s passing with dismay and sadness. Their representatives regretted that he had not received appropriate medical attention for his worsening condition, neither was hereleased despite the repeated calls to this end. They urged the Kyrgyzstani authorities to clarify the circumstances of his death. Among others, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the EU made such statements. IPHR stressed that the struggle for justice on Askarov’s behalf did not end with his passing. It called on authorities to promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate his death and hold accountable any official found guilty of wrongdoing with respect to ensuring lifesaving medical attention for the defender.

Prior to Askarov’s tragic passing, he was repeatedly denied justice. On 13th May 2020, the Supreme Court rejected a final appeal submitted by Askarov’s defence and again upheld his life sentence, which was handed down in 2010 following an investigation and trial marred by due process and fair trial violations, together with torture allegations that have never been properly investigated. The Bir Duino Human Rights Movement reported that police and court officials failed to take adequate measures to respond when aggressive groups present during the May 2020 hearing hurled threats and insults at the defence both in and outside the courtroom.

In another development, on 12th June 2020, Bishkek’s Administrative Court ruled to terminate the proceedings in a lawsuit filed by Askarov against Kyrgyzstan’s government because of its failure to implement the 2016 UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) decision on his case. The judge concluded that the lawsuit did not fall within its competence. In its 2016 decision, the UNHRC found that Kyrgyzstan had violated Askarov’s rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and called for his immediate release and the quashing of his conviction. This did not happen and the re-trial initiated in Askarov’s case following the UN body decision failed to ensure a fair review of his case.

The 15th June 2020 marked the tenth anniversary of the arrest of Azimjan Askarov. In a letter IPHR received from Askarov a few days prior to this, he wrote:

“Those who put me in prison did so to silence me. But since I have been locked away my voice has been heard even more clearly than ever as I draw attention to the injustice ethnic Uzbeks have suffered in Kyrgyzstan and the impunity that prevails after the June 2010 events.”

As an ethnic Uzbek, Askarov became a symbol of the miscarriage of justice and the disproportionate targeting of this ethnic minority group that followed the June 2010 events.

Peaceful Assembly

As covered in the previous update, the state of emergency which was declared in Bishkek and several other areas in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a temporary ban on assemblies. Thus, as of 25th March 2020, all protests, demonstrations, rallies, pickets, strikes and other assemblies were banned in the affected areas and the government informed the UN Secretary General about its derogation from the relevant provision of the ICCPR.

As discussed in detail in an IPHR-LPF review of the human rights impact of the government’s COVID-19 response, the ban on assemblies continued under the quarantine that was introduced in Bishkek and elsewhere when the state of emergency ended on 10th May 2020.

In practice, law enforcement authorities allowed some peaceful protests to take place during the period covered by this report, while dispersing others, which resulted in selective law enforcement. There were cases when peaceful protests were dispersed, even if the participants practised social distancing and wore face masks, such as during a protest against controversial draft NGO legislation held outside the parliament building on 22nd May 2020 and another protest against violence against women held at the same venue on 15th June 2020.

Among the assemblies that were allowed to take place without interference was a protest held in Bishkek on 29th June 2020 against the new law on manipulation of information, which parliament had adopted a few days earlier (see Expression below). A protest was also organised on the same day when parliament passed this law, with participants collecting signatures against it.

On 5th June 2020, youth activists, NGO representatives and journalists held an online rally under the slogan #tazhadym (“I’m fed up”), expressing discontent with the current situation in the country.

Expression

Covid-19 related restrictions on media and free speech

As covered in the previous update, the state of emergency declared in Bishkek and several other cities and regions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in restrictions on the work of media. In particular, for several weeks in March-April 2020, journalists were not allowed to move around freely to carry out their professional activities. Journalists also reported problems with obtaining information from the authorities on the measures put in place against COVID-19. At the same time, as discussed in more detail in the IPHR-LPF report, there are concerns that the restrictions on the work of the media did not apply equally to state and non-state media outlets.

The authorities have also been engaged in problematic efforts to prevent the spread of alleged false information on issues related to the pandemic. As covered in the previous update, following the introduction of emergency measures, national security services detained and intimidated numerous individuals accused of spreading false information, and the Code of Violations was amended to provide for fines for the dissemination of such information in the context of emergency regimes.

In a further development that gives rise to serious free speech concerns, in mid-May 2020, members of parliament put forward draft legislation on “manipulation of information”. This legislation requires the owners of internet sites and pages to ensure that these resources are not used for the dissemination of information that is “false” or “not credible” - without defining these key concepts. It also grants supervisory authorities the power to block access to such information without a court decision.

Following a speedy process, parliament passed the legislation on “manipulation of information” on its third and final reading on 25th June 2020, despite the widespread criticism of it. The adoption of the law was condemned by the media and civil society communities, and a campaign was launched to call on the president to veto it. In an open letter to the president, journalists and civil society activists warned that the law is open to “arbitrary and selective implementation” aimed at stifling the expression of critical opinions and media investigations of corruption. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir criticised the law:

“I share the concern of the authorities to combat the dissemination of false information related to the current health crisis. However, vague legal definitions will not provide media and social media users with the necessary legal certainty in order to foresee the consequences of their activities. Furthermore the regulation of online content by an ‘authorised state body’ may, in the absence of a clear mechanism and due process, seriously restrict freedom of expression.

He also said that his office was preparing a review of the law.

At the beginning of August 2020, the president sent the draft law back toparliament for revision. He said that he supported the objectives of the law but found it important to ensure its reconsideration taking into account, among others, human rights issues.

New problematic anti-terrorism legislation

The State Committee for National Security (SCNS) initiated problematic amendments to national anti-terrorism legislation. According to these amendments, based on requests by law enforcement authorities, courts may designate information and organisations disseminating this information as ”terrorist” and “extremist” through a simplified procedure where there is no need to hear those affected. Media experts and lawyers are concerned that the proposed provisions may result in arbitrary application which unduly restricts freedom of expression. In particular, they fear that media outlets may be banned and closed down for distributing information which is later deemed as “terrorist” or “extremist” and thus penalised without having had any intent to promote such material.

Similarly, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir voiced concern about the proposed amendments, saying that they “could negatively impact the media’s activities and freedom of expression in the country”. He called on the authorities to reconsider the amendments and bring them in line with international standards. When leaving for summer break at the end of June 2020, the members of parliament had yet to consider this draft legislation.

Excessive claims for damages in media defamation cases

A defamation case against two leading independent media outlets was still pending in court. As covered previously on the Monitor, a former top customs official and his family members filed defamation lawsuits involving unprecedented large claims for damages against Radio Azattyk (the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) and Kloop following the publication in November 2019 of an attention-grabbing corruptions investigation carried out by these two outlets together with the global OCCPR network. The claimants are requesting moral damages totalling 45 million Som (around 580,000 USD) from the two outlets and one of Kloop’s journalists. The claimants dropped their claims for damages against the 24.kg news agency, which re-published the findings of the corruption investigation, after the agency posted a retraction.

Sverdlov District Court in Bishkek began hearing the case on 20th January 2020. Soon after this, the lawyers of Radio Azattyk and Kloop petitioned to transfer the consideration of the case to another court. This petition was rejected, a decision that was upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court in late June 2020. The hearing of the merits of the case was suspended until this issue had been settled. At the time of writing, it was not known when the trial would resume.

Media watchdogs and experts have denounced the disproportionate damages sought in this case, warning that the case seriously endangers freedom of expression and the media in the country.

This is also not the only case where public figures have levelled excessive claims for damages against media outlets who publish articles deemed defamatory. Courts often rule in favour of the claimants in such cases, even if sometimes awarding smaller damages than those sought. For example, in mid-June 2020, Bishkek City Court upheld the ruling of a lower level court in favour of former Deputy Prime Minister Zhenish Razzakov, who had sued the opposition Asia Plus newspaper for defamation because of an article alleging that he has ties to the Tajikistani security services. While Razzakov had requested 10 million Som (about 130,000 USD) in damages, the lower level court awarded 1 million Som (around 13,000 USD), a sum that the appeal court further reduced to 50,000 Som (around 7,000 USD).

Arson attack on TV channel

On the morning of 7th June 2020, unknown perpetrators threw a Molotov cocktail (a bottle containing a flammable substance) into the window of the office of the regional, private TV company “Third Channel” in the city of Talas. As a result, a fire broke out in the office. According to “Third Channel” Director Zhannat Toktosunova, no one was in the office at the time of the fire, but the fire damaged broadcasting equipment to an estimated total value of 15,000 USD. She also said that shortly before the attack, government supporters had criticised the TV channel on social media, accusing it of “spreading western values” because it had re-aired programmes produced by the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In addition, Toktosunova said that authorities had previously summoned her and other journalists from “Third Channel”, demanding that they change their coverage.

Kyrgyzstan’s Media Policy Institute and several other media organisations and journalists issued a joint statement condemning the arson attack and calling on the law enforcement authorities to promptly identify all those involved in it. The international Committee to Protect Journalists and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media similarly called for a prompt and thorough investigation into the attack. The Department for Information and Mass Communication under Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture called the attack “unacceptable” and said that it hoped that law enforcement authorities would investigate it “promptly, thoroughly, openly and impartially”. At the time of writing, the investigation into the attack was under way.

The arson attack on “Third Channel” is not the only recent attack threatening the operations and safety of media and journalists. On the night of 3rd March 2020, unknown perpetrators broke into the office of the Politklinika outlet in Bishkek, stealing journalists’ tapes and a hard drive, without touching the office equipment such as notebooks and printers. Politklinika filed a complaint with the police. However, the signatories to the joint media statement mentioned above condemned the fact that the police had not taken adequate measures to identify those behind the attack and warned that the failure to hold perpetrators accountable may tacitly contribute to attacks on independent media and journalists.

Suspected perpetrators of attack on journalist on trial

As covered in the previous update Factcheck.kg’s Chief Editor Bolot Temirov was physically assaulted in Bishkek on 9th January 2020. Temirov and colleagues believe that the assault was aimed at intimidating him because of his journalistic work. Factcheck.kg has repeatedly published investigative reports about government corruption, including a report published a few weeks before the attack that concerned the lavish lifestyle of the wife of the former top customs official implicated in the high-profile corruption investigation mentioned above.

On 14th January 2020, the police arrested four men suspected of carrying out the attack on Temirov. They were charged with robbery and hooliganism. The trial, initially set to begin in March, was postponed during the COVID-19 state of emergency but began in late May 2020. On 18th June 2020, the pre-trial detention of the suspected perpetrators was prolonged by another two months. Temirov said that the investigation into who ordered the attack continues but he expressed doubts that police will find these people.

Criminal cases against bloggers

As covered before on the Monitor, several bloggers have recently been charged with “inciting hostility”, an offence punishable under broadly worded Article 313 of the Criminal Code.

The criminal case against Facebook page administrator Aftandil Zhorobekov, who was facing charges on these grounds, was terminated in late May 2020. Following this outcome, Zhorobekovthanked his supporters, saying that the case could have taken “a completely different turn” had it not been for the outcry against these charges.He concluded that “every like on Facebook brought me closer to release”. Zhorobekov was detained in November 2019 and accused of inciting inter-regional hostility by disseminating “information discrediting the current authorities” and by “dividing” the visitors to his Facebook page into “opposing groups” and provoking “insulting comments” among them. Human rights experts found that the blogger was, in fact, prosecuted for his criticism of the authorities and for the comments made by visitors to his page. In December 2019, Zhorobekov was placed under house arrest for the remainder of the investigation.

In the case of Instagram host Elmirbek Sydymanov, who was charged with inciting inter-regional hostility in February 2020, the prosecutor requested a six year prison sentence on 2nd June 2020. The verdict was expected to be announced on 8th June, however the court proceedings were suspended pending the outcome of a psychology-linguistic expert assessment that the court commissioned following a petition by the defence. At the time of writing, Sydymanov remained under house arrest. The charges against him are related to a live Instagram broadcast in which he expressed negative views about the dialect swear words used by visitors to his site from southern Kyrgyzstan and said that those who live in this part of the country therefore are “not developed” and that he “does not like” them. He later apologised for his statements. Legal experts found that the blogger was essentially discussing the question of which visitors to his site were swearing “more correctly” below his posts and concluded that this is “silly” but not prohibited speech.