Azimjon Askarov in prison. Photo courtesy of Khadicha Askarova. All rights reserved.
A review of Azimjon Askarov, I am happy… (2017).
“I am truly happy because today the cause of Azimjon Askarov has become a symbol of the great battle for freedom, freedom of thought and justice in Kyrgyzstan.” This is how the memoirs of Askarov, Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent political prisoner, end, offering at least some closure and inspiration for struggle next to fatalism in the face of hopelessness. But this only comes after a nightmarish journey through the suffering, grief and injustice that gripped the lives of the protagonist, his family and friends – and the thousands of other people affected by the 2010 conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In April 2010, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was toppled in a revolution. But it was followed in June by a bloody conflict, now known as the “June events”, which erupted in the country’s south in the ensuing power vacuum. Kyrgyzstan had already endured the ouster of its first post-independence president Askar Akayev in 2005. In the aftermath, various commentators argued that the violent events of 2010 represented the climax of an already messy democratic transition.
The ordeal of Azimjon Askarov, however, is a stark reminder of how Kyrgyzstan eludes facile explanations. The book tells the story of an ordinary citizen and his extraordinary pursuit of justice in the face of seemingly untouchable law enforcement and judicial institutions. That Askarov is eventually sentenced to life in prison – despite the lack of evidence and domestic and international pressure for a fair trial – by the very state machinery he tried to hold to account is ironically tragic.
In a sense, this book epitomises the disillusion and despair that resulted from the failure of the Kyrgyzstani state and its international partners to acknowledge the suffering of the victims of the dramatic events of 2010, bring perpetrators to justice, and begin the painful but necessary process of national healing and reconciliation.
A life dedicated to the fight for justice
The book opens with Askarov’s “cloudy” childhood on a collective farm in the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic. This early life was marked by the constant struggle to make do with the little his farm worker family received in return for their hard work in the fields. After serving in the Red Army, Askarov, born in 1951, graduated with an arts diploma in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Throughout the 1980s, he earned a good living as a layout artist producing visual campaigning and propaganda material in the official Artists’ Association. His activism was initially sparked in 1990, when inter-ethnic clashes broke out between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities in southern Kyrgyzstan. After a confrontation of nationalist groups from both sides over the redistribution of farmland and political representation, violent clashes spread to the cities of Osh and Uzgen, claiming up to 600 victims.
In the aftermath of these tragic events, Askarov noticed the increasingly frequent “abuse and violence towards local residents” by police in his hometown of Bazar-Korgon and neighbouring villages in the Jalal-Abad province in south-western Kyrgyzstan. He helped to uncover and bring to justice such incidents including through newspaper publications that prompted the district or even the provincial-level internal affairs administration to correct their wrongdoings. As a member of a Jalal-Abad-based human rights organisation and a journalist with a column in the monthly paper Justice for all – which soon became notorious among local law enforcement – Askarov advocated the concerns of people in the region, as well as fellow Uzbeks who were accused of religious extremism on the other side of the border in Uzbekistan.
In the 2000s, Askarov’s conflict with local law enforcement and the judiciary was only exacerbated by his investigations into murders in his hometown district police station, which the local department of internal affairs tried to cover up. Among other cases, Askarov and his colleagues helped to bring to light the death of local trader Tashkenbai Moidunov during police interrogation, or the systematic rape and resulting pregnancy of Zulkhumor Tokhtanazarova, who was imprisoned for 7 months for alleged involvement in petty theft. These revelations resulted in local law enforcement and prosecution personnel losing their jobs and being brought to justice, which let the “anger of the police against [Askarov] grow hundredfold.” Thus, when deadly clashes between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities erupted in June 2010, it seemed like Askarov’s tragic fate had already been sealed .
Emblem of the injustice surrounding the June 2010 "events"
Askarov’s story exemplifies that of many people who suffered from the “June events” in south Kyrgyzstan. In the aftermath, hundreds of people were wrongly accused, detained and sentenced on fabricated charges. According to Askarov’s account of events, however, others who shot at peaceful inhabitants in and around Bazar-Korgon were not arrested by law enforcement or prosecuted by the judiciary, nor were those who looted and burnt private property. To this day, the perpetrators of these crimes walk free.
The narrative meticulously reconstructs how Askarov was summoned to the District Department of Internal Affairs while he was documenting the casualties and damage wrought to Bazar-Korgon, including the burnt-down office of his Justice NGO. Here, Askarov was presented with false accusations of instigating a crowd of people to attack the local police station on 4 June, when he was actually in Moscow, as well as of colluding in the murder of a police inspector, Myktybek Sulaimanov, on 13 June on a bridge just out of town.
The events that followed are suitably referred to as “steps into hell”. Askarov refuses to confess to crimes he has not committed, as well as to falsely implicate his neighbours in handing out automatic weapons. He is first abused and kicked until he loses consciousness, while his brother is brought to the police station and heavily beaten. He is then put in pre-trial detention, and in turns beaten and interrogated by investigators, who force him to refuse a medical examination under pain of death. His lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov and fellow rights activists document the bruises and injuries left on his body by the beatings. Askarov enjoys only brief respites from abuse while in detention; his lawyer Toktakunov is physically and verbally assaulted, and receives death threats. Despair creeps in and Askarov attempts, but fails, to take his own life. At this point, he confesses to having lost the “will to live.”
This is followed by the first court hearing on 2 September 2010, where Askarov and seven other defendants face murder charges relating to the death of Sulaimanov, the inspector. The session is preceded and followed by beatings from policemen in the police station courtyard, with the defendants’ “screams being heard by our relatives and lawyers on the street.” When a special commission is formed to investigate these incidents, Askarov is once again forced to deny having been beaten. He tells commission members that he fell on the floor, an explanation “they readily accepted” in order to “close the case with the formulation: ‘The facts could not be verified.’”
In the end, despite the lack of evidence against Askarov and the continuous abuse and death threats against his lawyers, the Bazar-Korgon District Court sentences five of the eight defendants, including Askarov, to life in prison. While the verdict is based on false statements extracted from the accused under duress and torture, it is nonetheless upheld by the Jalal-Abad provincial court. After more beatings and abuse in various detention centres, which he tries to escape in several more suicide attempts, Askarov is finally transferred to Prison No. 47 in Bishkek to serve his sentence.
Askarov dissects the contradictory case made against him and the other defendants. He argues that the authorities’ failure to collect, preserve and analyse evidence, as well as the absence of traces at the crime scene, point to a cover up by the police and other authorities. The gunshot wound at the back of Sulaimanov’s head, for example, appears to indicate that he was killed by his own colleagues with two key purposes: first, to silence their “disobedient” colleague, who threatened to report an incident that led to the death of an Uzbek man in the district police station on 4 June 2010; and second, to put the blame on the Uzbek population for the violence and crimes it suffered. “That way,” argues Askarov, “the siloviki came up with supposedly ‘serious grounds’ for the justification of crimes against the peaceful inhabitants of the town, and torture and ransom, specifically.”
Furthermore, argues Askarov, the murder of Sulaimanov “was also useful for some politicians in order to distract attention from the desperate situation of Uzbeks, who were killed and robbed by armed people in June 2010”. He backs up his claim with the fact that former interim President Roza Otunbayeva put pressure on prosecutors to sentence Askarov. Then Interior Minister Azimbek Beknazarov also made press statements justifying Askarov’s arrest with alleged evidence in the form of a video recording from the interrogation, which, however, has never been presented to this day.
The dark side of Kyrgyzstan’s post-2010 political order
The remainder of Askarov’s narrative deals with life in Prison No. 47, where he lives through the death of his mother and survives yet another suicide attempt. However, the fact that Allah once again “did not allow [him] to die”, the support from his wife Khadicha and his family, from fellow human rights activists and lawyers, as well as the attention of several diplomats and representatives form international organisations, give him new hope and help him to find some peace in the study of the Quran and in daily prayers. From this support comes also his desire to provide legal help to other prisoners and bring their cases to public attention.
Askarov survives the resentment from the camp’s personnel and solitary confinement thanks to Allah and to the “letters with words of support from friends from all over the world”. In 2015, he is awarded the Human Rights Defenders Award from the US State Department which, unfortunately, brings him back to the attention of the security services and the authorities, who use it as a pretext to terminate the Kyrgyzstan-US cooperation agreement.
This, and the fact that Askarov’s wife was apparently followed on her way to a 2015 film festival in Bishkek in which his life work was honoured, are only some reminders of the de facto authoritarian order that has emerged in Kyrgyzstan after 2010. The consistent attempts of international actors such as the EU or the UN Human Rights Council to prompt the Kyrgyz authorities to review Askarov’s case and release him from prison have proven ineffective over the years, as authorities like former President Almazbek Atambayev have hidden behind a rhetoric of rule-of-law and non-interference into the judiciary. Even parliamentary opposition leaders like Omurbek Tekebayev – himself sentenced to eight years in prison in 2017 – have opposed proposals to act upon international pressure to ensure a fair trial for Askarov.
I am happy ends in the anticlimax of Askarov’s case revision by the Chui regional court in Bishkek in the winter of 2016-2017. Again, blatant procedural mistakes, inconclusive evidence and contradicting statements by various policemen and other involved parties, as well as reports of torture and abuse inflicted on the defendants and witnesses, do not lead to the overturning of Askarov’s life sentence. On the contrary, he details how the verdict mimics the unjust decisions of the district, provincial and Supreme courts in 2010 and 2011.
The final scene, in particular, is surreal: the judges look down in shame, the main judge’s face blushes as he sweats and fails to finish reading out the verdict. It is at this precise moment that Askarov feels like “an absolute victor.” Following the verdict, Askarov comes close to dying from the hunger strike he declares in protest, but is convinced to desist by the pleading of his family, friends, and medical personnel.
Azimjon Askarov’s story poses uncomfortable yet inevitable questions. How is it possible to resume a normal life for people who suffered so much in the “June events”? What is the peace in today’s Kyrgyzstan worth if it is built upon the suffering of many innocent people, and the impunity of the perpetrators who remain at large? How is it even possible to build sustainable peace in the country when justice has not been done?
So far, the elites have followed the logic of everyday pragmatism, excluding questions of justice and reparation from the smallest common denominator of social ordering in Kyrgyzstan, and many people have followed suit. This book exposes the short-sightedness and inherent violence of such an approach, for Askarov and on behalf of many others like him, urging people to reconsider the legacy of the 2010 conflict in Kyrgyzstan and for the future of the country.