U.S. Human Rights Awards Set Off Diplomatic Brawls With Venezuela, Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan says honoring jailed activist "did not adhere to levels of cordial relations."

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of State this week honored a human rights activist jailed in Kyrgyzstan and a group of lawyers in Venezuela with its annual Human Rights Defender Awards, recognizing their work advancing human rights in the face of repressive government regimes. Within hours of the awards' announcement, representatives of both nations denounced the choice of recipients, setting off diplomatic brawls between the U.S. and the activists' home countries.

At a ceremony at State Department headquarters on Thursday, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken lauded Azimjan Askarov, an activist best known for investigating police brutality in Kyrgyzstan. Askarov is serving a life prison sentence after being found guilty of "inciting ethnic hatred" in a 2010 trial that human rights groups said was marred by serious irregularities.

Even while behind bars, Blinken said, Askarov "continues to inspire and unite the entire human rights community in Kyrgyzstan, bringing together leaders from all ethnicities and backgrounds to help move their country forward."

Angry government officials in Kyrgyzstan on Friday announced that the nation would repeal a 1993 treaty between the United States and the Kyrgyz Republic, saying in a statement that the human rights award "did not adhere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to to strengthen interethnic harmony" in the country.

The move by the Central Asian nation shows how much influence the U.S. wields in the global human rights landscape, and how even an award, with no official change in U.S. policy, can ruffle the feathers of a smaller nation seeking greater participation in the global economy.

In Venezuela, the group honored by the State Department is known as Foro Penal Venezolano, or the Venezuelan Penal Forum, a non-governmental organization made up of 200 lawyers and 1,000 human rights activists. During the widespread protests in 2014 against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, the FPV reportedly catalogued the detention of more than 2,000 demonstrators.

"Today a majority of these student demonstrators who have pending charges receive free counsel from Foro Penal," Blinken said at Thursday's ceremony in Washington. "The risk to Foro Penal to the safety, to the property, to the freedom of its lawyers and defenders is very real. But their work carries on."

Following the State Department's announcement Wednesday that it intended to honor Foro Penal with a human rights award, the president of the Venezuelan parliament, Diosdado Cabello, denounced the commendation. An ally of Maduro's, Cabello accused the Foro Penal and other opposition groups of being "backed by foreign parties and organizations," and of participating in "forums abroad [and] lying about the Venezuelan reality."

The State Department decision to hold up Foro Penal as a model of human rights advocacy is likely to further sour the already bitter relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela's government. Earlier this year, the Obama administration imposed visa restrictions and travel bans of Venezuelan officials alleged to have committed human rights abuses. In return, Maduro accused the U.S. of attempting to overthrow his government, and of meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.

At Thursday's award ceremony, the executive director of Foro Penal, Alfredo Romero, and its founder, Gonzalo Himiob, attended in person. Askarov's award was accepted on his behalf by his son, Sherzod Askarov.

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