It is with great sadness and anger that I learned this morning of the death in jail in Kyrgyzstan of Human Rights Defender Azimjan Askarov. I knew him personally, and I knew him to be innocent of any crimes. He spent the last ten years in prison because Kyrgyzstan wanted to silence his peaceful criticism of the government.
Despite his frail health and the great risks to his life from COVID-19 if he remained remained in detention, authorities had insisted on keeping him in jail. Many of us had recently urged the government to release him.
Askarov was a 69-year-old ethnic Uzbek, and before his arrest, in the aftermath of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, Askarov spent more than ten years documenting cases of police brutality and mistreatment of prisoners in his hometown of Bazar-Korgon.
In May, just before his final appeal against life sentence was rejected by Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court, other UN Special Rapporteurs - including those specialising in the independence of judges and lawyers, and on torture - joined me in publicly warning about about the toll that dismal prison conditions and solitary confinement had had on his health, and the increased risk that COVID-19 posed to elder prisoners like him with underlying health conditions.
I visited him in prison in 2012 when I was the Director of the NGO Front Line Defenders.
At that time he was being held in an underground cell with no light. He was brought into a room to see me and it was clear he was very depressed and weak despite wearing a heavy overcoat against the icy cold.
He was agitated and angry that he was there at all, as he recounted the background to the events that led to his imprisonment, and his clearly unfair trial. He had been held with no access to his lawyer, and his lawyer and relatives were attacked while trying to visit him in pre-trial detention.
In various parts of the world other Human Rights Defenders with underlying health conditions are also at increased risk because of COVID-19, and should be immediately released. More innocent people could die in jail. Askarov should never have been in prison in the first place, and the authorities knew the risks to his life if he wasn’t released. Other governments should not repeat their horrific mistakes. It is the time to be kind.