GENEVA (22 December 2011) – United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday expressed deep regret that the Kyrgyz Supreme Court on 20 December upheld the conviction and life sentence of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, despite his reported torture in detention and serious violations of his right to a fair trial.
Askarov, the director of human rights organisation Vozdukh, was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of his private property in November 2010 for the murder of a police officer, participation and organisation of mass riots and incitement to inter-ethnic hatred. Askarov’s arrest is believed to be related to his peaceful activities as a human rights defender, particularly his documentation of inter-ethnic violence in the Jalal-Abad region in June 2010.
Since their arrest, Askarov and some of his seven co- defendants have reportedly been subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment by police on several occasions. Askarov reported having been repeatedly and severely ill-treated, including inside the court building. The torture allegations were raised at all stages of the criminal proceedings but no investigation was initiated.
“It is particularly alarming that the judges failed to consider the defendants' claims that confessions had been extracted under duress,” Pillay said. “Judges in Kyrgyzstan must ensure that the civil rights of defendants are protected, particularly when there are allegations of torture.”
Under international human rights law, allegations of torture must be promptly and impartially investigated by competent authorities, including judges and prosecutors. Evidence, including confessions, extracted through coercion, must be excluded by the court. The High Commissioner urged authorities to comply with their obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party.
There are strong indications that a significant number of defendants in cases relating to the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan were subjected to torture and ill-treatment to force confessions later admitted as evidence in court. In one case, even when a court recognised that the defendant was ill-treated in pre-trial detention, no investigation was ordered.
“The Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan must ensure that in those cases where inadmissible evidence might have been used, verdicts rendered by lower courts are reversed and criminal cases are dismissed or sent for retrial,” the High Commissioner said. “Criminal investigations should be conducted to hold the perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment accountable, and victims should be provided with adequate compensation.”
The trial of Azimjan Askarov is representative of the serious problems with the administration of post-conflict justice in Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the June 2010 violence. More than 5,000 related criminal cases have been initiated, but most such trials monitored by the Un Human Rights office have failed to meet fair trial standards.
Defendants have had inadequate access to lawyers and family members, while defence lawyers have been denied access to documents, undermining their ability to defend their clients. During Askarov’s trial, at least 10 defence witnesses were reluctant to testify, stating that they were afraid of reprisals by police officers and threats from relatives of the alleged victims.
“The conduct of police investigations has, instead of reinforcing the rule of law, led to further human rights violations,” the High Commissioner said. “I’ve been informed that lawyers, defendants and defence witnesses have repeatedly been physically assaulted and verbally harassed.”
Appeals court hearings have also been marred by intimidating statements, including ethnicity-based obscenities targeted at defendants, their relatives and lawyers. In some cases, judges have allowed such statements to go unchallenged.
“Judges must maintain their impartiality irrespective of the ethnicity of victims, lawyers and defendants,” Pillay emphasized. “Judges are the guarantors of the rule of law and I urge them to conduct their important work strictly in line with the Kyrgyz Constitution and applicable international human rights standards.”
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