Gulnoza Said* is Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Europe and Central Asia
– On a recent morning in Bazar-Korgon, southern Kyrgyzstan, Khadicha Askarova was giving hasty instructions to her daughter about what needed to be packed.
They were about to set off: first for the capital Bishkek, some 600km from where they live, and then another 70km to a prison colony where her husband, Azimjon Askarov, was transferred in March.
But Askarov, a 68-year-old independent journalist and rights activist, shouldn’t be in jail at all. The U.N. Human Rights Committee ruled in 2016 that Askarov was subject to torture and mistreatment from the moment of his detention on June 15, 2010 to his speedy trial and subsequent imprisonment, and that he should be released immediately.
CPJ’s research into his case found that the original trial was marred by irregularities and allegations of torture, mistreatment and harassment of defendants, including Askarov, and their witnesses. But Kyrgyz authorities defied the U.N. resolution and in 2017, amid international outcry, upheld his life sentence.
Conditions in the new prison are harsh. In letters home, the journalist wrote that he had run ins with the guards and that prison officials punish detainees after visiting days. His health is also deteriorating and he has limited access to medication, the journalist’s wife, Askarova, said.
“What breaks my heart is to see how much he aged since being imprisoned. He used to be a man full of energy and vigor. Now, he is old, sickly, skinny, and there’s no way out of this situation for him,” she said, fighting back the tears when we spoke via a video messaging app earlier this month.
The couple, who have been married for over 40 years, now have limited contact: just six family visits and two phone calls a year. As Askarov wrote in a recent letter to his wife, “They like keeping us under a tight lid here. Communication with the outside world is banned.”
The letter, which his wife shared with CPJ, also gave a glimpse of the harsh prison conditions: “After family visits, inmates are punished by being forced to eat raw onions and carrots for several days.”
“On regular days, they give us pea soup that contains nothing but watery peas. On public holidays, we get what the prison administration calls plov [pilaf] but it is not more than 150g of rice cooked with some carrots, per person.”
Since Askarov’s transfer to a prison outside Bishkek in March, he wrote that he has had three “incidents” with prison guards. The journalist did not specify the nature of incidents, but wrote that guards were known for their mistreatment of and conflicts with inmates.
“There are few good ones among them”, he added, almost as if he was preventing possible punishment should the content of the letter became known to the guards.
One of the incidents was connected to the journalist’s poor health. He has the heart condition tachycardia, hypotension, and gets dizzy and nauseated if he stands for too long.
Under prison rules, if a guard enters a cell, the inmate must stand. “That’s the rule. Twice a day, guards enter cells. An inmate has to cite his full name and an article of the criminal code he was convicted of violating. But Azimjon was not able to stand straight for too long. His knees bend, he had to sit down. That was the ‘incident’,” the journalist’s wife, Askarova, told me.
Soon after the transfer, Askarov complained about his health to prison administration, and said that low blood pressure and a cold was diagnosed. “But they did not have any medication to give me,” he wrote.
Askarova told CPJ that doctors at the prison ask families to bring medication. “They rely on us for something that they ought to provide,” she said.
She added that the few visits they are allowed are emotional, and the travel hard and costly. She makes sure that one visit falls on her husband’s birthday, May 17. This year, the couple’s daughter and their three grandchildren also visited on his birthday, their first visit to a new jail.
‘I’m afraid they will forget how he looks’ Askarov’s wife says
“The new prison is much farther from Bishkek. After a nearly 14-hour drive to Bishkek, we took another taxi to the prison, but then had to walk about seven kilometers in the heat and dust. It was especially hard for the little ones, although they were excited to see their grandfather. They are still little, and I am afraid they can forget how he looks like, how he sounds,” Askarova said.
Adding to that concern is a rule at the prison banning families from taking photographs during visits. “Now, I have to look at old pictures of Azimjon. They deprived me even of the photos of my husband,” she said.
Askarova said she would move to Bishkek to be closer to the prison, but she cannot sell the house that her husband has owned for decades. The authorities seized the journalist’s property after he was charged in 2010.
In 2015, the journalist’s lawyer successfully appealed against the seizure, but before Askarova had overcome a legal quagmire of changing the ownership, authorities placed a new lien on the house in February. She said she has started another appeal process.
Askarova said that before they visit each year on his birthday, the couple’s daughter Navruza, who lives in Uzbekistan, usually comes to Bazar-Korgon to help pack personal items, food, medicine and books. But it is Askarova who picks flowers from her garden and buys bouquets at a florist for her husband.
“He is an artist, you know. He loves flowers. I get the most beautiful ones for him. Many kinds, sometimes several bouquets,” she said.
Azimjon and Khadicha met at art college in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1974. They have been married for 42 years and raised four children, who live in Uzbekistan. He used to work as an artist. But every time he heard a neighbor complain of injustice, he felt the urge to help, Askarova said.
In the late 1990s, he started documenting the cases, mediating between his community members and law enforcement, and researching legal books. He eventually became a go-to person in Bazar-Korgon if the rights of a member of his community had been violated.
He was known for taking up the cases on police brutality. It was this reputation that led many people to come to him for help when violence against ethnic Uzbeks erupted in June 2010, she said.
In prison, Askarov started to paint again. In 2014, international and local activists organized an exhibition of Askarov’s work to raise awareness of his case. In 2018, he wrote a book, “I am happy,” which includes a dedication to his late mother, “who lost me, her son, during her and my life, and left this world, shocked by the greatest injustice.” Copies of the book are still available online.
During his imprisonment, Askarov studied English and is able to read the many cards sent to him from around the world, his wife said. She added that he has been studying Japanese from the books and dictionaries she brought him, and that he has become interested in herbal medicine because conventional medication was not available in prison.
Askarov has also kept a diary since 2010. “He writes down everything. I keep reading them in between prison visits. One word that he uses most frequently is freedom. When he sees rain through the cell window, he writes ‘I wish I was free to feel rain drops on my skin. When he sees snow, he writes ‘I wish I was free to be outside and enjoy the snow now’. Freedom is his main wish and goal. He lives for it,” Askarova said.
* Gulnoza Said is a journalist and communications professional with over 15 years of experience in New York, Prague, Bratislava, and Tashkent. She has covered issues including politics, media, religion, and human rights with a focus on Central Asia, Russia, and Turkey.