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Rights defender sentenced to life in prison

A Kyrgyz court has sentenced an Uzbek human rights defender and journalist to life in prison, charging him with hostage-taking, inciting ethnic hatred, participation in and organisation of mass disorder, and complicity in murder, report Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House.

Azimjon Askarov is director of Air, a local human rights organisation, and was involved in the Jalal-Abad province human rights network called Justice. He has a history of documenting prison conditions and police torture of detainees through his reporting.

CPJ says the charges against Askarov are unfounded. He is being targeted by Jalal-Abad law enforcement because of his documentation of human rights violations. Askarov and seven others were arrested in the village of Bazar-Korgon, where a group killed a policeman and injured several officers during ethnic clashes that swept through southern Kyrgyzstan in mid-June. Prosecutors failed to prove Askarov was at the scene.

Photographs obtained by Askarov's lawyer show bruises on his back indicating that he may have been tortured during detention. During the trial, angry members of the crowd verbally and physically attacked both defendants and defense lawyers while court monitors did nothing. The dead police officer's relatives and supporters beat the defendants' relatives outside the courthouse.

"The authorities completely failed to guarantee the safety of defense lawyers and witnesses," said Human Rights Watch. "The trial should have been about justice - but instead it played out like vengeance."

The court sentenced four of Askarov's co-defendants to life in prison, two others to 20 years, and one to 9 years.

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