Kyrgyzstan protests over U.S. human rights award to dissident

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan protested to the United States on Friday over the granting of a human rights award to a dissident who is serving a life sentence for “inciting inter-ethnic hatred” in the former Soviet republic.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State conferred the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on Azimjon Askarov, a journalist and activist. His son Sherzod accepted it on his behalf.

Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was convicted of “organizing mass disturbances” and stirring up ethnic hatred leading to the killing of a policeman during clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, when more than 400 people were killed.

Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry handed a protest note to U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Richard Miles on Friday.

“The decision to make an award to A. Askarov ... contradicts the friendly relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and can damage the government’s efforts to consolidate interethnic harmony ... by creating a threat to civil peace and stability in society,” the Kyrgyz government said in a statement.

Kyrgyzstan, a mainly Muslim nation of 5.5 million people which borders China and lies on a drug-trafficking route out of Afghanistan, saw two presidents deposed by popular revolts in 2005 and 2010, and remains unstable.

A parliamentary commission in 2011 concluded the ethnic conflict had been triggered “by some leaders of the Uzbek community” and the family clan of fugitive President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in April 2010.

International and local human rights bodies have demanded Askarov’s release from jail. Askarov alleged the police had tortured him, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

Visiting Kyrgyzstan last month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the authorities to hold an impartial investigation into the ethnic clashes and retry those convicted after the bloodshed, irrespective of their ethnicity.

The U.N. said in a 2012 statement that about 75 of those killed were ethnic Uzbeks, who also comprise about 77 percent of those arrested and charged with crimes relating to the violence.

The U.S. Department of State called Askarov “a uniting figure in the human rights community, bringing together people of all ethnicities and backgrounds to urge the government of Kyrgyzstan to take effective action towards creating a sustainable peace between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz”.

Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Trevelyan