US State Department honours Kyrgyz activist for his commitment to "sustainable peace"
Bishkek (AsiaNews) – The US State Department has decided to award the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award to Kyrgyz activist Azimjan Askarov (pictured), who has been in prison for more than four years on charges of inciting ethnic hatred during clashes in 2010 in the regions of Osh and Jalal-Abad (southern Kyrgyzstan).
The US State Department gives the award to individuals and non-governmental organisations for outstanding achievements and courage in the defence of human rights and democracy in the conditions of persecution by the authorities.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour Tom Malinowski presented this year’s award to Askarov’s son Sherzod.
Reacting to the decision, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the move "seriously damages" bilateral ties between the United States and Kyrgyzstan.
Azimjan Askarov, 64, is a journalist and Uzbek activist. He heads Vozdukh (Air), a human rights group that monitors police actions. In recent years, it exposed the latter’s brutal methods and numerous violations of the law by state officials.
A court tried and convicted him in connection with inter-ethnic clashes that broke out in June 2010 and with the murder of a police officer during the violence. As a result of his conviction, he was sentenced to life in prison and had all his property confiscated.
During the unrest in 2010, army tanks were used to end violent clashes between minority Uzbeks and majority Kyrgyz, which lasted from April until August. Overall, 400 people died, with some 2,000 wounded and 400,000 people displaced, mostly Uzbek.
Despite numerous appeals from the international community, including the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during his recent visit to Central Asia, the Kyrgyz government has failed to find the people responsible for the outbreak of violence.
Askarov has always insisted that he is innocent, calling his conviction an act of "retaliation" for his activism. He has denied the charges of inciting ethnic hatred, organising mass disorder, and complicity in the murder of a law-enforcement officer.
In a statement, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said that awarding Askarov the US honour "would undermine the process of strengthening the unity of the people and harmony" in Kyrgyzstan.
Conversely, the State Department described Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, as "a uniting figure in the human rights community, bringing together people of all ethnicities and backgrounds to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to take effective action towards creating a sustainable peace between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz."