Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Liz Throssell
Date: 28 July 2020
It is with great sadness that we learned that human rights defender and journalist Azimjan Askarov died in prison in Kyrgyzstan over the weekend. We send our sincere condolences to his family, friends and fellow human rights defenders who had advocated for his release from prison.
In May, we urged the Kyrgyz authorities to allow Askarov, who was 68, to leave prison as his frail health meant he was among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent weeks we received information that his health was deteriorating further but despite repeated calls, Askarov was not provided with urgent medical assistance required and was not released on humanitarian grounds. Askarov died in a prison hospital in Bishkek on 25 July. We understand that the Kyrgyz authorities have listed the cause of his death as “double pneumonia”.
Convicted on various charges, including accessory to murder, incitement of inter-ethnic hatred and hostage-taking in the context of ethnically motivated violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, Askarov was serving a life sentence and had spent some 10 years behind bars.
In 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his defence.
COVID-19 poses challenges for all countries, including Kyrgyzstan where the authorities have repeatedly and publicly expressed their commitment to international human rights norms and standards, which also include obligations to ensure the right to health and the right to life. For people deprived of their liberty, the State has a heightened duty of care.
We call once again on the Kyrgyz Government to consider an early humanitarian release of the most vulnerable prisoners, including women, minors, the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, people with low-risk profiles who have committed minor and petty offences, people with imminent release dates and those detained for offences not recognized under international law.
With regard to Azimjan Askarov, there should be a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into his death. Under international human rights law, his family have the right to redress.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Human Rights Office has flagged the need for Governments to act to prevent the spread of the disease in detention facilities, which are often overcrowded and unhygienic, and where health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Almost by definition, physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are near impossible.
We have seen some notable examples of good practice. At the same time, we remain deeply concerned that many Governments are either not taking steps to decongest detention facilities or are not releasing anywhere near the number of prisoners they have approved for release.