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“Even though I am in prison, I feel the freedom of my soul”

Today Azimjon Askarov, an imprisoned human rights defender from southern Kyrgyzstan, faces an appeal hearing. In this interview, he shares his hopes for his and his country's future.

Mihra Rittmann
13 May 2020
Prisoner of conscience Azimjon Askarov before his imprisonment. Photo (c): Khadija Askarova. Used with permission

Many human rights defenders around the world are in jail for standing up for the rights of others. Azimjon Askarov is a well-known writer, artist, and human rights defender from southern Kyrgyzstan. In September 2010, Askarov was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison on vague and poorly substantiated charges related to the wave of inter-ethnic violence that had rocked southern Kyrgyzstan three months earlier. His trial was marred by serious human rights violations and credible allegations of torture which have never been investigated.

During his almost 10 years behind bars, Askarov, nearly 69, has suffered deteriorating health and inadequate medical attention. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ordered his release and his conviction be quashed. A Supreme Court hearing in Kyrgyzstan, scheduled for May 13, is Askarov’s final opportunity to appeal his case in Kyrgyzstan’s courts and convince the judiciary to do the right thing.

With assistance from local human rights organisation Bir Duino, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann was recently able to carry out a rare interview with Askarov from prison. Askarov provided written answers to HRW's questions. His words reflect how he found strength and drew on support over the last 10 years, his views on Kyrgyzstan, and what he would do if he were released. The interview has been abridged for brevity.

Mihra Rittmann: Have the last 10 years changed you?

Azimjon Askarov: Before my arrest, I only paid attention to work, while my family, and serving Allah remained in the background. I knew very little about religious practice. But in the days immediately following my arrest, during the most difficult days, Allah gave me the opportunity to get closer to myself, [and] I was free to read the Quran.

[The Quran says]: "If Allah gives you support, no one will defeat you. And if Allah abandons you, then who will help you but him?"

If I had not followed the Quran's advice, I would have long ago rotted underground. Instead of suffering in a wet, narrow cellar, I created a paradise for myself. I ate little, slept little, read the Quran more. Allah gave me more than [the freedom] that was taken from me.

MR: You wrote a book in prison entitled, “I am Happy.” Can you explain why you chose that title?

AA: What fool in prison would say he is happy? [Yet] I am actually happy, because people on five continents stand in solidarity with me and support me spiritually with their letters. Even though I am in prison, I feel the freedom of my soul. In prison I gained a new family that wholeheartedly supports me. Every letter is priceless to me.

What fool in prison would say he is happy? Yet I am actually happy, because people on five continents stand in solidarity with me

Those who write letters from all corners of the world are not indifferent and believe I am right, and this inspires me and gives me strength, courage, and resilience. With their short letters they were able to give me spiritual support. People of all ages have written me – from age 14 to 74. An older couple wrote me from England inviting me and my family to visit them “first thing upon my release.” A 14-year old student from Japan wrote, "Wherever I am, at school or competitions, thoughts of you occupy a big place in my head. I want you to be free sooner, and it will be easier for me too."

I have received hundreds, thousands of such letters. In reading some of the letters, I could not keep tears of joy from my eyes. I give the letters to my children for safekeeping.

MR: And that’s what has strengthened you?

AA: Yes. Faith in Allah gives me strength. My friends from far off lands never abandoned me to my fate, but continue to write [letters of support] to me and to my wife. I am infinitely grateful to them and wish them many years of life and good health. Allah willing, I will meet them when I am free. Thank you for having believed me then and for believing me now.

The love of my children and grandchildren, as well as the support and courage of my spouse, who was not afraid of persecution, did not flee the country, and did not leave me to my fate. Many ethnic Kyrgyz women at the Bazar-Korgan market called me brother and still today are in close, friendly relations with my spouse.

As long as I live and breathe, I will fight for justice, for restoration of my rights, and for the rights of others unjustly convicted after the June 2010 events. My fight inspires them – they know that restoring my rights is the beginning of restoration of their rights. For the past 10 years I provided legal support to other prisoners.

There were serious violations of my rights to a fair trial from the first days of [my] detention and trial, which have continued to this day. I swear – publicly, with my hand on the Quran – that the accusations made against me are lies and slander. I have been imprisoned for more than four years in difficult conditions despite the UN Human Rights Committee decision that I immediately be released, [which] is obligatory to carry out, as stipulated by the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic.

I swear – publicly, with my hand on the Quran – that the accusations made against me are lies and slander

MR: What will you do if you are released?

AA: This question makes me happy. First, I want to visit my mother’s grave, and tidy it up. She could not bear the torment and suffering after my conviction and passed away on May 25, 2012.  [I want to] go to Ferghana [a city in southeastern Uzbekistan] – where my mother was born, to see relatives there; [and] go to Tashkent, where my children and grandchildren live.

I will urge people to live in peace and harmony. I will work on new books.

I have a great desire to paint landscapes and portraits. I want to go to China, where both modern artists and old masters work, and where they reproduce paintings of great artists. After acquiring new skills I want to reproduce the paintings of the great [Vincent] van Gogh and other painters. I want to create a library of fine arts.

MR: How do you think people should promote and protect their human rights in Kyrgyzstan?

AA: Only a developed civil society can open the way for the prosperity of their country, to a freer climate. For this to happen, there needs to be a stable Constitution, and one very important condition must be met: citizens have to able to trust government and, respectively, the actions of government agencies themselves must be predictable.

Civil society must develop [themselves] and fight against corruption, [and] do everything possible to prevent human rights violations.

In order for public institutions to develop, it is necessary to establish justice and the independence of the judiciary. The ancient philosopher Cicero said: “a judge is a speaking law, the law a silent judge.” Respect for human rights and freedoms is, to a large extent, dependent on judges. That is why it is necessary to accelerate judicial reforms. We must always call what is white – white, and what is black – black.

We see the dangerous trend of nationalism in our country. Key public institutions must relay to citizens the necessity of resisting this tendency.

We who are living in this country will achieve the rule of law and it is important for everyone to learn to observe the law and order, without exception.

MR: Few in the world know much about Kyrgyzstan and about what is going on there. What would you say to inspire interest in your country?

AA: The events in the south in June 2010 and the high-profile case against me gave [the world] an opportunity to learn about a country called Kyrgyzstan.

In order for the world to learn more about the positive sides of our country and to treat it with respect, it is necessary to develop sports. Aisuluu Tynybekova, [an Olympic wrestler] and other athletes who have raised the national flag of the Kyrgyz Republic on the world stage, have provided an opportunity to learn more about our country.

Art and the development of the arts is another visiting card for the country, for example, the opera singer Bulat Minzhilkiev. And in the visual arts, the most popular portraitist living in St. Petersburg is a rural boy from Naryn. His works are sold at high prices, but few people even in the Kyrgyz Republic know about him.

In any society, human rights and freedoms come first.

Update: On May 13, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court ruled to uphold Azimjon Askarov’s lifetime prison sentence, despite a 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision calling for Askarov’s immediate release and for his conviction to be quashed.

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