In 2010, Uzbek journalist and activist Azimjan Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment in Kyrgyzstan after documenting human rights violations by Kyrgyz police and prison guards. For years, his wife, Khadicha Askarova, campaigned tirelessly for his release, but on 13 May 2020, the Supreme Court of the Kyrgyz Republic upheld his life sentence. It was his last opportunity to appeal his case. Two months later, Azimjan died in prison due to Covid-19. Now, a documentary following the last months of his life is shedding light on the Askarovs’ plight and the situation of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority.
Kyrgyzstan has a sizeable Uzbek minority, most of whom live in the south of the country. Yet relations between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the last few decades have been marked by ethnic violence and oppression. In 2010, tensions boiled over into open conflict after a fight broke out between a group of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the centre of Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan. The event drew crowds of ethnic Kyrgyz who repeatedly attacked Uzbek neighbourhoods. More than 400 people died in the violence. Uzbek businesses and homes were looted and burned. Azimjan played a significant role in documenting human rights violations by the police during the violence. But just a few months later, he was accused and found guilty of inciting ethnic hatred and violence, and killing a policeman, crimes he denied committing. Following his imprisonment, UN experts called on his immediate release.
Last Chance for Justice, directed by Moldovan filmmaker and journalist Marina Shupac, follows the journey of Azimjan and his wife until his death. Shupac, who hails from Basarabeasca in southern Moldova, initially made the documentary as part of her masters programme in Ethnographic and Documentary Film at University College London. She first met Khadicha in 2019 when she travelled to Osh to research Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority. On the day she was due to travel to Khadicha’s home, her driver refused to take her there. “He said that if the authorities saw that he is in any way related to Askarova, he could face repercussions,” Shupac told The Calvert Journal. “[Azimjan’s] case was used as an example by the authorities, and his death had a chilling effect on the entire [Uzbek] community,” she said. “Many people said ‘look at Azimjan Askarov, he spoke up, and now he is in prison for life.’”
In little over 20 minutes, the short, BBC version of the documentary delves into Khadicha’s deep sorrow and tireless fight for her husband’s release. Sitting on the floor of their home, surrounded by letters of support from activists across the world, she holds up I Am Happy, the book that Azimjan wrote from prison. “He writes that he’s happy because he has friends all over the world,” Khadicha tells the camera. There are also other visual keepsakes. After Azimjan’s imprisonment, the authorities raided their family home, but Khadicha was able to hang onto her husband’s paintings (both the Askarovs are also artists). Today, she has added the self-portraits and paintings of inmates that Azimjan made while in prison to the collection.
Last Chance for Justice stands out for the emotional weight of the story, the intimacy of the camerawork, and the touching relationship between Khadicha and Shupac. The audience follows Khadicha to Azimjan’s final hearing, and sits with her afterwards as she vows to stay strong and keep fighting — for love, and for justice — even after his life sentence is upheld.
Filmed mostly while borders were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of the footage — Khadicha picking up fresh fruit from her garden and making Azimjan’s favourite food to bring on her monthly visits to prison — was taken by Khadicha herself, or by her neighbours. The shots are accompanied by conversations between the Askarovs, and Khadicha, with the filmmaker. Then, in July 2020, the documentary took an unexpected turn. “One day Khadicha sent me a video of her knitting a jacket for Azimjan,” says Shupac. “The next morning, I got a message from her that Azimjan had died in prison.”
The news forced Shupac to make a difficult decision. “I didn’t know if it made sense to continue. I wanted to make the film in order to bring justice to Azimjan. When he died, I asked myself: how could I continue?” she says. “But after talking to Khadicha and her children, I felt like they were determined to go on with the film to make his story heard.”
“Azimjan and Khadicha Askarova were the only Uzbeks willing to talk on camera. But their case is one of many”
Last Chance for Justice was released in January as part of the BBC’s Our World series. Since the broadcast, the film has already been a significant force in the fight to bring justice to Azimjan’s case. On 4 June, the documentary was shown at the European Parliament and it was followed by a discussion on the situation of the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, which involved high profile decision makers, such as the European Union Special Representative for Human Rights, the Advisor to the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, and the director of the human rights movement Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan. The film was also officially selected for the Czech Republic’s One World Film Festival, the largest human rights film festival in the world, and on 17 June, the picture won two prizes, for Best Short Film, and Best Student Film, at the One World Media Awards.
Khadicha, who has now moved to Tashkent, has plans to open an arts school named after Azimjan to honour him and spread his love for painting. Likewise, Shupac hopes that the film can continue to shed a light on the situation of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority. “Azimjan and Khadicha Askarova were the only Uzbeks willing to talk on camera,” she says. “But their case is one of many.”
Watch Last Chance for Justice online on BBC iPlayer.