Imprisoned journalist Azimjon Askarov has died in Kyrgyzstan, according to international human rights organizations.

Askarov was a “brave, courageous, outspoken” activist, noted Gulnoza Said of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The CPJ and Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced the death of Askarov, a 69-year-old ethnic Uzbek, on July 25. He was said to have died earlier that day.

Cause of Death Unknown

Both organizations said the government of Kyrgyzstan had not revealed the cause of Askarov’s death. The CPJ called upon the government to resolve the matter.

HRW called for an “effective, independent investigation” into the journalist’s death.

According to the CPJ, Askarov’s wife said he had been ill with the COVID-19 virus but prison authorities had not tested him despite his fever and extremely weak condition. The death of the journalist "could have been prevented," Said claimed.

The authorities in Kyrgyzstan were to blame for the death of Askarov, according to Mihra Rittmann, a researcher at HRW. "They intended for him to die in prison, and so he has," she said.

Defending Human Rights in Kyrgyzstan

As the director of a civil rights group in southern Kyrgyzstan, Askarov had reported on the conduct of local law enforcement and prison officials, HRW recalled.

On June 10, 2010, violence broke out between different ethnic groups in the area, Askarov covered the conflict and he was subsequently arrested following criminal accusations concerning the death of a police officer in Askarov's hometown of Bazar-Kurgan, HRW said. Askarov complained that he was tortured during his detention, but the complaints were brushed aside by the courts, HRW added.

After Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment on September 15, 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called for the journalist to be set free but the Kyrgyzstan government simply gave him another trial and another sentence to life imprisonment, according to HRW. In May 2020, Askarov's last appeal was rejected by the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court, the CPJ said.

The CPJ recalled that it gave Askarov its International Press Freedom Award in 2012. The organization also noted that Askarov was the only recipient of the award to die in prison.

Kyrgyzstan Defies International Pressure

During Askarov’s imprisonment, unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to have him released were made by the EU and individual European countries as well as the US, the CPJ recalled.

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. It is surrounded by China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. According to the CPJ, Askarov had wanted his final resting place to be in Uzbekistan.