Journalists in prison as of December 1, 2013

Kyrgyzstan: 1

Azimjon Askarov, freelance
Imprisoned: June 15, 2010

Askarov, a contributor to independent news websites including Voice of Freedom and director of the local human rights group Vozdukh (Air), was sentenced to life in prison in September 2010 after being convicted on charges that included incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer. The charges were filed amid violence that swept across southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, pitting ethnic Kyrgyz residents against ethnic Uzbeks. Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek who had exposed law enforcement abuses for many years, was actively documenting human rights violations in his hometown of Bazar-Korgon in the midst of the unrest.

A number of human rights groups have concluded that the criminal charges against Askarov were fabricated. A June 2012 CPJ special report-based on interviews with Askarov, his lawyers, and defense witnesses, as well as review of court documents-found that authorities retaliated against Askarov for his years of reporting on corrupt and abusive practices among regional police and prosecutors.

Authorities accused Askarov of inciting a crowd to kill a Kyrgyz police officer, a case built on the testimony of other officers who claimed the journalist had made provocative remarks. Yet no witness testified to having observed the murder of the officer, or having seen Askarov participate in any act of violence.

The trial was held amid an atmosphere of intense intimidation of the defense – Askarov and his lawyer were both assaulted during the proceedings – and a general climate of fear among the Uzbek population. People who could have provided exculpatory testimony were ignored by authorities or too frightened to testify. Askarov's wife and neighbors, for example, said the journalist was elsewhere at the time of the officer's murder.

Authorities also accused Askarov of urging another crowd to take a local mayor hostage, although no hostage-taking ever took place. And authorities claimed to have found 10 bullets in a search of Askarov's home. The defense disputed the legitimacy of the evidence, noting that investigators failed to produce any witnesses to the search, a step required under Kyrgyz law.

Askarov told CPJ that authorities had long threatened to retaliate against him. Throughout his career, Askarov had exposed the fabrication of criminal cases, arbitrary detentions, and the rape and abusive treatment of detainees in his native Jalal-Abad region. Askarov's exposés had led to overturned convictions and cost several officials their jobs.

Investigations conducted by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and a commission sanctioned by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe each found a pattern of prejudicial law enforcement in the region following the unrest, with ethnic Uzbeks disproportionately targeted for arrest and imprisonment. "Ethnic Uzbeks constituted the large majority of victims of the June violence, sustaining most of the casualties and destroyed homes, but most detainees and defendants-almost 85 percent-were also ethnic Uzbek," Human Rights Watch found. Although 19 people died and more than 400 buildings were torched in Askarov's hometown during the unrest, no other individuals were successfully prosecuted there, according to local human rights defenders.

Askarov endured prolonged brutality while in police custody prior to his trial, he told CPJ. A physician hired by the defense team examined Askarov in jail in December 2011 and concluded that he suffered "severe and lasting" effects from the brutality. Askarov told CPJ that he was beaten with a gun, baton, and a water-filled plastic bottle, once so badly that he fell unconscious.

Askarov's imprisonment has been challenged by the Kyrgyz government's own human rights ombudsman, as well as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez.

Although in December 2012, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev publicly pledged during a visit to Brussels to review the case if new evidence emerged, prosecutors failed to pursue leads provided by Askarov's lawyers and CPJ. No action followed after Askarov's co-defendants in the case publicly said in July 2013 that authorities forced them to testify against the journalist.

In November 2012, CPJ honored Askarov in absentia with an International Press Freedom Award.

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