WASHINGTON–U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), member of the Foreign Relations Committee, today joined his colleagues in calling on four Central Asian Presidents to release detainees imprisoned for peaceful activism who are also at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Citing high-profile cases of detained students, activists, and human rights defenders, the bipartisan letters were sent to the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
“Individuals should never be imprisoned for exercising their rights of freedom of assembly, association, and speech,” the senators wrote in their letter. “We call for releasing these individuals on the merits of their cases, but today, we also urge you to act quickly on health and humanitarian grounds. While all nations and citizens have been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the risks to the detainee population are particularly acute given the enclosed living conditions.”
The letters were led by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and also signed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).
In today’s four letters, the senators highlighted the following 10 individuals for immediate release:
- Aset Abishev, Kazakhstan: Mr. Abishev is an activist serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of supporting the outlawed opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement. In November 2018, Mr. Abishev was found guilty of financially supporting a criminal group when he provided “information support” to the DVK in the form of posts on Facebook. His lawyer said that he was recently punished with solitary confinement for expressing concerns about prison conditions in light of COVID-19. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report cited Mr. Abishev’s case as an example of Kazakh “[o]pposition parties [being] banned or marginalized through laws against “extremism” and trumped-up criminal charges against their leaders.” Sentence: 2018-2022.
- Maks Bokayev, Kazakhstan: In May 2016 authorities arrested Maks Bokayev, leader of the non-government organization Arlan, for protesting Kazakhstan’s Land Code and for statements made on social media. In November 2016, a Kazakh court convicted him of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord,” “spreading of false information” and organizing unsanctioned demonstrations and meetings. He is currently in a penal colony and will be prohibited from engaging in civic activism for three years after his release. In April 2017 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that “the detention of Mr. Bokayev…was due to [his] exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and…[his] detention was arbitrary.” Sentence: 2016-2021.
- Azimjon Askarov, Kyrgyzstan: In June 2010, Kyrgyz authorities arrested Mr. Askarov, the founder of an organization monitoring prison conditions, for inciting protesters. That September a court found him guilty on unfounded charges of participating in mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred, and abetting the murder of a police officer. UN Human Rights Committee experts found in April 2016 that Mr. Askarov “had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defence.” Sentence: 2010-life.
- Daler Sharipov, Tajikistan: A prominent journalist who has published articles on human rights and religious freedom, Mr. Sharipov was arrested on January 28, 2020, on charges of “inciting religious discord” for printing and distributing a dissertation. On April 16, he received a one-year sentence, a charge Human Rights Watch has called “fabricated” and “baseless.” Amnesty International has declared him “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.” Sentence: January 2020-January 2021.
- Buzurgmehr Yorov, Tajikistan: In September 2015, Mr. Yorov, a human rights lawyer, was arrested on fraud-related charges and attempts to “change the constitutional system by violence.” The detention came after he announced that one of his legal clients, an imprisoned member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), was being tortured. In October 2015, a Tajik court sentenced him to over a decade in prison for fraud, forgery, “arousing national, racial, local, or religious hostility,” and extremism. Amnesty International wrote in October 2015 that “[t]he timing [of the arrest] indicates that the charges are likely to be politically motivated and designed to deny the arrested members of the IRPT access to legal counsel.” Sentence: 2015-2030s.
- Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, Turkmenistan: Mr. Annaniyazov, a human rights activist who had previously been imprisoned for organizing a peaceful demonstration, was re-arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years on charges of illegal entry and theft of an official document. This sentence should have ended in 2019, but authorities are now subjecting him to five years in a lockdown setting (“living in a designated area”). In an August 2013 opinion, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that “The deprivation of liberty of Gulgeldy Annaniyazov is arbitrary.” Sentence: 2008-2024.
- Mansur Mingelov, Turkmenistan: A citizen arrested alongside his brother in June 2012 on drug charges, Mr. Mingelov lodged an official complaint after his release that his brother had been tortured in detention. As a result, police officers threatened him with prosecution and rearrested him on drug-related charges. He is serving a 22-year sentence for the production and distribution of pornography, contraband, and production or distribution of drugs. In July 2018 Amnesty International wrote that Mingelov was sentenced “in an unfair trial in retaliation for complaints about torture in police detention.” Sentence: 2012-2034.
- Omruzak Omarkulyev, Turkmenistan: A citizen of Turkmenistan who had formed a Turkmen student group while studying abroad in Turkey, Mr. Omarkulyev was arrested in 2018. He has reportedly been sentenced to 20 years in prison on unknown charges. In a May 2020 petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Freedom Now criticized “the lack of transparency and political motivation exhibited in Mr. Omarkuliev’s case…and the apparent absence of any due process.” Sentence: 2018-2038.
- Iskandar Khudaiberganov, Uzbekistan: At the time of his arrest in 2002, Khudaiberganov served as chairman of the Center of Democratic Initiatives. He was convicted of “terrorism,” “premeditated, aggravated murder,” and “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order,” and was sentenced to death. However, he is currently facing a life sentence following the abolition of the death penalty. In 2009, Human Rights Watch wrote that “Iskander was convicted solely on the basis of…confessions obtained under torture and witness statements later retracted in court.” Sentence: 2002-life.
- Akrom Malikov, Uzbekistan: In July 2016 Uzbek authorities detained Mr. Malikov, a researcher at the Institute of Handicrafts of the Academy of Sciences and a blogger, on extremism charges for allegedly writing articles for the opposition People’s Movement under a pseudonym. A court convicted him of plotting to overthrow the government. In a 2019 submission to the UN Committee Against Torture, Human Rights Watch described Malikov as being “currently detained or imprisoned on politically-motivated charges.” Sentence: 2016-2022.