* Rights bodies say Askarov's charges spurious, urge retrial * Say this case may compromise government moves to democracy By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Human rights bodies urged Kyrgyzstan on Thursday to review the sentence of a prominent rights defender, saying he had been jailed for life after a faulty probe marred by violence and threats against the defence.
Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet nation which hosts U.S. and Russian military air bases and lies on drug trafficking route out of Afghanistan, saw the worst ethnic violence in its modern history in June when at least 400 people were killed.
Clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan sent shockwaves across Central Asia which borders giant regional power China. More than 400,000 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, were temporarily displaced.
On Wednesday, a court in southern Kyrgyzstan sentenced Azimzhan Askarov and four other men to life in jail for offences including fomenting ethnic hatred, organisation of mass disorder and complicity in murder. A woman and a man got 20 years in prison and one man was jailed for nine years.
Freedom House, a U.S. human rights research body, said in a statement that Askarov had been sentenced on "spurious charges".
Kyrgyzstan's interim government, struggling to control the volatile country after the bloody overthrow of the president in April, has set a parliamentary election for Oct. 10, seen as a landmark in building Central Asia's first people's democracy.
But Askarov's sentencing "could leave an indelible mark on the recent steps the country has taken towards democracy", said Paula Schriefer, Freedom House's acting executive director.
"Reviewing this most troubling situation would present the new government with a chance to prove its genuine commitment to human rights and transparency." New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the authorities to guarantee a fair and public retrial for Askarov and his co-defendants and to free him pending the retrial.
It said the trial of Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek active who documented prison conditions and police treatment of detainees in southern Kyrgyzstan, "had played out like a vengeance".
"The authorities completely failed to guarantee the safety of defence lawyers and witnesses," said Andrea Berg, HRW's Central Asia researcher. "The court heard numerous witnesses for the prosecution, but none for the defence," HRW said.
"On the second day of the trial, three of the defendants, including Askarov, appeared in the courtroom with black eyes -- but they seemed too terrified to complain of any ill-treatment."
HRW said Askarov had told the court that "he had been bruised when he bumped into a detainee in front of him -- three times -- while being transferred to the courtroom".
Sumar Nasiza, representative of Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor general's office, said: "I cannot comment on these sentences, I haven't seen them yet. Either side can appeal these sentences."
The prosecutor general's office said some 280 people had been charged on more than 4,000 crimes during the ethnic riots, including 72 people suspected of committing murders.
HRW, which documented numerous cases where government troops allegedly aided ethnic Kyrgyz to loot Uzbek quarters, cited official data on Thursday as saying that the vast majority of those facing trials for the June violence were ethnic Uzbeks. (Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Paul Taylor)
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