Letters   |   Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan should reopen case of jailed journalist

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February 27, 2013

Aida Salyanova General Prosecutor of Kyrgyzstan
139 Toktonaliyeva St,
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Sent via facsimile: +996 312 542 466

Dear Prosecutor General Salyanova,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to bring to your attention the case of Azimjon Askarov, an investigative reporter and human rights activist imprisoned in Kyrgyzstan. CPJ has written widely about Askarov, who was sentenced to a life term on fabricated charges in a trial marred by procedural violations. Now, following new evidence that has come to light, we ask that you respect Kyrgyzstan's commitment to the rule of law and fulfill the public pledges that President Almazbek Atambayev has made in regards to the journalist's case.

Askarov was sentenced to life in prison in September 2010 on charges that included incitement to mass disorder, attempted kidnapping, and participation in a police officer's murder during the ethnic unrest in the region in 2010. CPJ, along with several international human rights groups, U.N. officials, and Kyrgyzstan's own human rights ombudsman, believe the charges and jail term handed to Askarov were in retaliation for the journalist's exposés of corruption and abuses of office by law enforcement officials and prosecutors in the region.

When asked about Askarov's case at a December 24 press conference in Bishkek, President Atambayev told journalists that he was interested in preserving the rule of law. He said that only the court--and not his office--was able to overturn Askarov's verdict, then said, "But if there are any particular witnesses [confirming Askarov's innocence], then the case must be reopened." Earlier that month, the president had made a similar statement during a visit to Germany, in which he said the case "must all be strictly according to the law and be decided by the courts, not by the president."

As you are well aware, articles 384 and 385 of the Kyrgyz Code of Criminal Procedure state that a case can be reopened based on new evidence and disclosure of biased court proceedings.

After the verdict in 2010, Askarov's defense lawyers began to gather evidence from witnesses whose statements confirmed his innocence. Before the trial, authorities had failed to take any statements from persons who would have spoken in the journalist's defense, according to CPJ research. This substantially limited Askarov's defense, and violated his right to a fair trial. And, according to article 352 of the same code, these violations in and of themselves provide legal grounds to nullify his verdict.

Askarov's lawyers provided CPJ with the statements they received from the journalist's neighbors and other witnesses who confirmed his testimony and said they saw him at specific dates and times in places that would have made it impossible for him to have participated in the officer's murder or other crimes. For example, at least three individuals confirmed seeing Askarov in his courtyard between 7:30 and 9 a.m. on June 13, 2010, far away from the scene of the officer's murder. Another witness said he saw Askarov at around 9:30 a.m. near the center of their village, which was at least a mile away from the scene of the murder.

Askarov's lawyers told CPJ that they had sent the defense witnesses' statements to your office in May and that your staff sent the documents to be evaluated in the same jurisdiction that Askarov was tried. However, we believe there is a conflict of interest in asking these prosecutors--the same ones whose abuses Askarov exposed in his stories, the same ones who fabricated evidence against him, and the same ones who sought his life imprisonment--to review the statements. We weren't surprised to learn that the prosecutors told you they had checked the statements and found them "baseless."

In order to avoid any conflict of interest, we ask that you appoint an independent team of investigators to reopen and examine Askarov's case in a transparent manner. We also ask that you ensure that he be tried with full guarantees of due process.

When Askarov was first taken into custody, police did not register his arrest for a full day, which renders that 24-hour span of his detention illegal. The journalist was also denied a lawyer for three days. He has reported being beaten and tortured throughout his detention and trial. The allegations of torture were confirmed by a doctor who concluded that he appeared to have "suffered severe and lasting physical injuries as a result of his arrest and incarceration." We ask that you ensure these allegations are duly investigated and do not occur again.

Throughout Askarov's imprisonment, Kyrgyz authorities, including President Atambayev, have expressed their commitment to the rule of law. We urge you to demonstrate this commitment in practice by reopening Askarov's case without further delay.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director


CC list:

President Almazbek Atambayev

Muktar Djumaliev, Ambassador of the Kyrgyz Republic to the U.S.

Pamela L. Spratlen, U.S. Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic

Erlan Abdyldayev, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic

Almambet Shykmamatov, Minister of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic

Michael H. Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Robert O. Blake, Assistant Secretary, South and Central Asian Affairs

Christopher H. Smith, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

Navanethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General

Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU External Relations Commissioner

Barbara Lochbihler, Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament

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