International rights groups condemn Kyrgyz activist's life jail sentence

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — International advocacy groups condemned the life sentence handed to a leading rights activist in Kyrgyzstan, saying Thursday that his trial was marred by violence and procedural irregularities.

The Nooken District Court in southern Kyrgyzstan convicted Azimjon Askarov on Wednesday on charges including complicity in murder, participating in mass violence and hostage-taking during deadly ethnic unrest that roiled the south in June.

Southern Kyrgyzstan remains on edge months after violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks left at least 370 people dead, most of them Uzbeks, and displaced around 400,000 people.

The sentence for Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, will stoke new fears that the authorities are singling out the minority Uzbek community for prosecution over the violence.

Amnesty International said Askarov had gathered evidence implicating police in the violence before being detained.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House said in separate statements that Askarov and three of his seven co-defendants appeared to have been subjected to physical abuse while in detention. He was also illegally held without charge for three days in the wake of an unauthorized search of his home, Freedom House said.

Askarov's relatives were denied entry to the courtroom during his trial and authorities took no measure to protect his lawyers from crowds gathered around the court building, the statements said.

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

Judge Nurgazy Alymbayev, who presided over the trial, denied there had been any irregularities.

"I handed down the sentence in accordance with all the trial material and acted of my own conscience," Alymbayev said. "If the defendants do not agree with the verdict, they can appeal."

Establishing the roots of the five-day wave of violence that erupted on June 10 has been hindered by sharply diverging testimonies, although international observers largely agree it rose out of petty interethnic brawls in the southern city of Osh.

Tensions have been kept at fever pitch by Uzbek allegations that the police, almost entirely comprised of ethnic Kyrgyz officers, have been targeting them for arbitrary arrests, intimidation and physical attacks.

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Associated Press Writer Peter Leonard in Almaty, Kazakhstan, contributed to this report.