2 October, 2014
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – PEN International’s Assembly of Delegates, meeting at the organisation’s 80th international Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan between 29 September and 2 October 2014 have today called for the immediate and unconditional release of three writers imprisoned in Central Asia: Azimjon Askarov (also known as Azimjan Askarov) from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
The three writers featured as “Empty Chairs” during the three days of the Congress. Each year, PEN PEN International selects individual imprisoned writers whose cases are emblematic of the challenges faced by their colleagues around the world. These writers are represented by an ‘empty chair’ which acts as a reminder of the writers’ absence and separation from their colleagues.
“The fact that we have been able to hold our 80th Congress in Bishkek, that we have been able to freely express a diversity of views and opinions whilst here, is a very encouraging sign in a country that has experienced severe political and social challenges in recent years,” said John Ralston Saul, PEN International’s president
“However, we must also highlight that there are writers and human rights defenders languishing in jails both in Kyrgyzstan and in other countries in the region, who have been incarcerated solely for practising their right to free expression and who should be released immediately and unconditionally”.
The three Empty Chairs:
Azimjon Askarov is a journalist and member of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority who has spent his career exposing corruption. Arrested during inter-ethnic conflict in June 2010, tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention and convicted on 15 September 2010 of organising mass disorder and complicity in the murder of a police officer, he was handed a life sentence after an unfair trial. Kyrgyzstan’s own human rights ombudsman’s office has stated that in a parallel investigation the office conducted, no evidence was found linking Askarov to the crime. PEN International believes the charges against him are politically motivated and that he has been imprisoned to stop his human rights and corruption reporting. As such, the organisation considers him to be held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.
Ilham Tohti is a writer, economist and intellectual from China’s Uyghur minority; he is one the world’s foremost scholars on Uyghur issues. Arrested in January 2014 and charged with ‘separatism’ in July 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of all his property on 23 September after a two-day trial which began on 17 September 2014. Tohti has never promoted violence or separatism, but has been critical of the Chinese authorities for their heavy handed treatment of the Uyghur minority. Tohti is a member of Uyghur PEN and received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014.
Vladimir Kozlov is a journalist, human rights defender and a founder of Alga!, a political opposition party. In addition to his work in print media, he has worked as a TV editor and co-founded one of Kazakhstan’s first private television channels. In October 2012, he was convicted of ‘inciting social hatred’ and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order of the state; he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years. His arrest and trial followed briefings he gave to the European Parliament on the 2011 police killing of approximately 15 striking oil workers in Zhanaozen; he called for an international investigation. Independent observers said that Kozlov did not receive a fair trial.
PEN believes that these three writers and human rights defenders were targeted solely for practising their right to freedom of expression which is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan are state parties. Although not a state party to the ICCPR, as a signatory to the ICCPR, China is nevertheless obliged to “refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose”.