Kyrgyzstan violence: Police accused of ethnic bias
- 19 February 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
Wearing an overcoat and a woollen hat, 59-year-old Azimjan Askarov, a prominent human rights defender from southern Kyrgyzstan, talks on camera.
"When I refused to sign the paper accusing some people of distributing weapons the investigator hit me on the head with a pistol. Blood went everywhere and he told me to clean it up."
The interview with Askarov was recorded in one of Bishkek's prisons with the permission of the authorities by a local journalist last December and posted online.
During the 15-minute video, Askarov describes the beatings, humiliation and torture he was subjected to during three months of pre-trial detention.
Last autumn, Askarov and seven other ethnic Uzbeks were tried for complicity in the murder of a Kyrgyz policeman. Askarov was also accused of being one of the organisers of deadly inter-ethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan last June.
He and four others were jailed for life.
Their appeal went to Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court. However, earlier this month, a decision by the court was postponed indefinitely.
Askarov, whose years of human rights activism focused on alleged police misconduct and abuse, denied all the charges.
He is one of dozens of ethnic Uzbeks convicted for their alleged involvement in crimes committed during the June violence.
More than 400 people were killed during several days of fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed - most of them belonged to ethnic Uzbeks.
In the aftermath of the violence the authorities launched thousands of criminal investigations.
But reports by international rights groups listed serious violations of Kyrgyz and international law during this process including arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture and extortion in exchange for freedom.
Human rights activists and lawyers on the ground complained that the majority of those brought before the court were ethnic Uzbeks, and that most of the cases investigated by the police were crimes against ethnic Kyrgyz.
The head of the Jalalabad-based non-governmental organisation, Spravedlivost (Justice), says that out of 32 criminal cases, the organisation is currently monitoring only one case where ethnic Kyrgyz are being tried.
"There are two young Kyrgyz who are being tried for the murder of two Uzbeks. But it feels like it is just a show case to demonstrate that not only Uzbeks are being brought to justice," says Valentina Grizenko.
"We know from the father of one of the accused that his son had a strong alibi, but was subjected to torture and police demanded money for his release."
The authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of ethnic bias in the conducting of their investigations.
In November, Kyrgyzstan's President Roza Otunbayeva said there was no discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in trials relating to the June riots.
But recently addressing the country's prosecutors, she appears to have made a U-turn.
"Arbitrary arrests and illegal criminal proceedings are taking place everywhere… We have to understand that by breeding lawlessness we are creating the ground for those who will come with weapons in their arms," said Ms Otunbayeva.
A group of lawyers in southern Kyrgyzstan has signed a petition urging the government to guarantee security and due process in courtrooms.
Their main concern was the aggressive behaviour of the victims' relatives; defendants and their families have been assaulted in and outside courtrooms.
Witnesses, lawyers and even judges have faced verbal abuse and threats. Police and court guards reportedly did little to intervene.
"I could not bring any witnesses to the trial because I could not guarantee their safety. If someone did show up they were pushed away by relatives of the victim," says Nurbek Toktakunov, defence lawyer for Askarov.
Mr Toktakunov, who is ethnically Kyrgyz, has been threatened, verbally abused and physically assaulted by the relatives of the dead policeman.
On one occasion, Mr Toktakunov says a glass of water was thrown in his face, and he was warned that next time it would be acid.
"People accuse ethnic Kyrgyz lawyers who are defending Uzbeks of being unpatriotic. There are people who have stopped greeting me. But I think it's quite the opposite - by backing the idea of a fair trial we are the ones who are defending the Kyrgyz national interest, " says Mr Toktakunov.
Chinara Bichelova, the wife of the policeman for whose murder Askarov was jailed, gives her side of the story.
"My husband was stabbed 27 times… they burned his body and threw it into the river," she says by phone from her village in Bozor-Korgon, south Kyrgyzstan.
"I have four children. During the court hearings when I saw those murderers behind the bars I could not stay unemotional. They tortured my husband. And the lawyers were trying to justify their actions."
Chinara and her mother-in-law recently held a press conference in Bishkek in which they warned that if the Supreme Court released Askarov, they would organise mass protests in Bozor-Korgon.
This is exactly what the new government in Kyrgyzstan wants to avoid.
After a popular uprising last April that forced then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power and left 86 people dead, a new interim government struggled to assert control, particularly in the south of the country - home to a large ethnic Uzbek community.
Ethnic tensions ignited in early June, followed by months of political turmoil. In October 2010, Kyrgyzstan held its first ever free and fair parliamentary elections. Now a fragile coalition government is in place.
There are many cases like Askarov's, but his has attracted perhaps the most international attention. The US and the European Union have both expressed their concern about the fairness of his case.
Ulugbek Babakulov, the editor of the Russian weekly MK Aziya, who interviewed Askarov in prison, says the human rights campaigner realises he may not be released under the current government.
"They can neither release him as their ratings among the population are so low. Nor can they keep him in jail because of the pressure from the international community," he says.
"The best option for them is to wait. The case is hanging in the air."