Kyrgyzstan: Ensure Safety, Fair Trial for Rights Defender

On September 2, 2010, the trial against Azimjon Askarov and another seven defendants on charges connected to the June violence began in the Bazar-Kurgan District Court. The first hearing in the trial was in Nooken, 10 kilometers from there.

Several independent monitors who were able to observe the hearing reported that many police officers were in the courtroom, in uniform and plain clothes. Guards allowed victims’ relatives into the courtroom, but not the defendants’ relatives, citing lack of space.

In the morning session, the victims’ relatives insulted, threatened, and shouted at the defense lawyers and the defendants while the prosecutor was reading the indictment. After the lunch break, the victims’ relatives became physically violent and punched the defense lawyers. While the judge called for respect for order in the courtroom, he did not warn or discipline any of the abusive spectators.

At the very end of the hearing, just after the judge left the room, one of the relatives threw a glass at the cage which, as is common in Central Asian countries, held the defendants. The glass shattered in front of one of the defense lawyers.

During recess, on the street outside of the courtroom, the victims’ relatives also threw stones at the defendants’ relatives and physically assaulted them. Many police were present, but they took no action.

Fifteen witnesses for the prosecution were questioned – 14 staff members of the Bazar-Kurgan police station and the governor of the Bazar-Kurgan district administration.

Defense lawyers made several motions during the hearing to change the trial venue and the facility where the defendants are being held. The judge declined to order a change of venue and said that moving the defendants to a different detention facility is outside his jurisdiction. The judge threatened to have the defense lawyers stripped of their licenses if they fail to appear at the next hearing, scheduled for September 6.

Askarov is director of Air, a local human rights organization, and had been active in the Jalal-Abad province human rights network called Justice. For several years his work focused on documenting prison conditions and police treatment of detainees.

He faces eight charges, including hostage-taking, inciting ethnic hatred, participation and organization of mass disorder, and complicity in murder. Some of the charges derive from an incident in which a group killed a policeman and injured several officers during mass disturbances in Bazar-Kurgan in June.

On three occasions in the two months since Askarov’s arrest, angry groups, which allegedly included relatives of the police officer who was killed, threatened and physically attacked Askarov’s lawyer. On July 23, a dozen women and men surrounded Toktakunov as he was entering the Bazar-Kurgan prosecutor’s office and threatened him with violence if he did not stop representing Askarov.

On August 2, a crowd accosted Toktakunov at the detention center where Askarov was being held and made the same threat. The next day a group of people entered the Bazar-Kurgan municipal building, where Toktakunov had been meeting with city officials, and threatened to kill him if he did not stop representing Askarov.

On July 21, a group of women threw stones at Askarov’s sister-in-law inside the police detention center when she tried to deliver a food parcel to him.

Local authorities did not respond to these threats and attacks, even though they took place on the premises of government municipal and law enforcement agencies.

“The attacks have sent an unambiguous threat to any attorney who might defend Askarov,” Berg said. “They send the same signal to any witness who might appear in his defense, and to any court in southern Kyrgyzstan slated to hear the case.”

Local authorities ignored several motions filed by Askarov’s lawyer to transfer him to a pre-trial detention facility outside Bazar-Kurgan. He was eventually transferred to a facility in Jalal-Abad on August 4 or 5.

“Askarov’s lawyer has filed a formal request to move the venue of the hearing to ensure safety for all parties,” Berg said. “We support this request and urge the authorities to take all measures to protect witnesses and ensure access to the trial by observers.”

Safety for independent monitors and witnesses at trials is a growing problem in southern Kyrgyzstan. For example, on August 13, an angry mob disrupted a hearing at the Karasuu District Court in the trial of Dilshod Muminov, a former member of the municipal council in Osh who was facing charges connected to the June violence. The mob attacked a defense witness and threatened the judge, calling for Muminov to be jailed. Although the judge called in 20 police officers, he was unable to get the situation under control and had to suspend the hearing. The trial resumed the following week.

On August 16, a group of angry women beat and kicked Abdumannap Khalilov, an ethnic Uzbek human rights defender, on the premises of the Osh Municipal Court as he sought information about several cases he was monitoring.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have on several occasions expressed concern about police mistreatment of Askarov.  

“Unquestionably, the authorities in the south are working in a heated and volatile situation,” Berg said. “That is precisely why they need to observe national and international law and not be bullied into populist decisions or vigilantism.”

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