NOOKEN, Kyrgyzstan — The courtroom is packed with agitated relatives of the victim and uniformed policemen. The defendants’ relatives are not allowed in due to the “lack of space.” The victim’s relatives shout insults and threats, then one throws a glass at the defendants, who are held inside a metal cage. It shatters in front of the defense lawyer.
The judge does little to restore order and denies all motions by the defense to move the trial. During recess, the victim’s relatives beat and throw stones at the defendants’ families outside. Police stand idly by.
This outrageous travesty took place in the small town of Nooken in southern Kyrgyzstan in August at one of the first trials stemming from the violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek in June that claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands homeless. The conduct of the trial set a terrible precedent for the many other trials related to the violence.
The situation is only getting worse as more trials get under way, and the authorities have taken little or no action to stop the attacks. There were three similar attacks last week.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg. Human Rights Watch research this June showed that many of these people were arrested with total disregard for legal requirements and due process protections, then tortured in detention. We documented at least 60 such cases.
I know one of the eight defendants in the August case well. Sixty-year-old Azimzhan Askarov, a well-known human rights defender, has worked with Human Rights Watch for many years. I met him in 2005, when he and I together interviewed refugees who had fled the massacre in Andijan, in neighboring Uzbekistan. Askarov, a man of courage and integrity, and his organization, Air, have also been outspoken critics of police brutality and prison conditions.
On June 15, the Bazar-Kurgan police detained Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, accusing him of participating in the violence, in a June 12 clash that resulted in the killing of an ethnic Kyrgyz policeman.
I got to Bazar-Kurgan a week after his arrest. Askarov had been denied access to a lawyer, and I was extremely concerned that he might be ill-treated.
My concerns grew stronger as the police started shooing me away. One of them said, "You may believe he is clean and innocent, but we know that he is a piece of shit." Another added that Askarov should be “promptly executed.” It was clear to me that leaving him in the custody of colleagues of the murdered policeman placed Askarov at risk.
When I tried to see the deputy prosecutor in charge of his case, she kept running away from me through the back doors. When I finally cornered her in her office, she started screaming at me at the top of her voice.
After several hours of negotiation, the authorities finally permitted Askarov’s lawyer to see him, and I was able to accompany him. I almost did not recognize Askarov. Once a tall, proud, dignified man, he now could barely walk and had to lean on the table to sit down and stand up. His gaze without his glasses, which he was not allowed to keep, seemed bleary, and he grimaced with pain every time he moved.
Two days later his lawyer managed to photograph the bruises on Askarov’s back and side. The lawyer was subsequently attacked at least three times by angry Kyrgyz crowds, which seemed to include relatives of the killed policeman.
Askarov and five of his co-defendants pleaded not guilty to charges that included inciting ethnic hatred, participation in and organization of mass disorder, and complicity in the murder. On the second day of the trial, three of the defendants appeared in the courtroom with black eyes — but they seemed too terrified to complain. Askarov explained he was bruised when he bumped into a detainee in front of him — three times — while being transferred to the courtroom.
Askarov and his co-defendants are among more than 250 people charged with criminal offenses in relation to the June violence. Even according to the official data, the vast majority are ethnic Uzbeks, although there is no doubt that both ethnic groups were responsible for crimes during the clashes. The Kyrgyz authorities have refused to properly investigate allegations of disregard of due process and torture in detention. A deputy general prosecutor told us that they had not yet confirmed the use of torture or ill-treatment in a single case since the June violence. Askarov, the deputy prosecutor said, had been beaten by a cellmate. One young man, who eventually died of injuries he sustained in custody, “tripped on the stairs and hit his head,” the general prosecutor told us.
Askarov and four co-defendants were convicted on Sept. 15 and sentenced to life in prison, a sad, but predictable end to this mockery of a trial. No defense witnesses had been called, as their safety could not be guaranteed either from the volatile mobs outside or the hostile and unchecked gallery in the courtroom.
If this denial of justice continues unchecked, Kyrgyzstan’s future looks grim indeed. The June violence left both ethnic communities deeply scarred, and completely shattered trust in the authorities. Torture, biased prosecutions and show trials will never allow the authorities to establish the truth about what happened, to bring the real perpetrators to account and to ensure justice for the thousands of victims. These violations will, on the contrary, sway the country further and further from reconciliation, stability and restoration of trust between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
Anna Neistat is an associate director for Program/Emergencies at Human Rights Watch and the co-author of a recent report on ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan.