Andijan Refugees Sent Back to Uzbekistan

The Kyrgyz government stands accused of trading refugee rights for a better political relationship with Tashkent.

Andijan Refugees Sent Back to Uzbekistan

The Kyrgyz government stands accused of trading refugee rights for a better political relationship with Tashkent.

International groups have voiced concern that the Kyrgyz authorities is quietly returning refugees and asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan in contravention of international law.

Kyrgyzstan won international plaudits last year for allowing 440 people to travel to third countries as refugees, after they fled Uzbekistan following the May violence in the city of Andijan, where journalists and human rights groups reported hundreds of civilians killed by security forces. Now it appears to be buckling to pressure from its bigger neighbour to deliver people wanted for questioning, even if they are technically entitled to the Kyrgyz government’s protection as holders of or applicants for refugee status.

The Bishkek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, issued a statement on August 24 saying it was worried about the fate of five individuals based in the city of Osh, four of whom disappeared last week. All five had applied for refugee status.

UNHCR said it had received credible information that at least two of them were now in custody across the border in Andijan.

“UNHCR regrets the obvious erosion of the Kyrgyz asylum system, which until recently was an exemplary one in Central Asia,” the statement concluded.

The US-based watchdog Human Rights Watch named the four asylum-seekers detained most recently as Ilhom Abdunabiev, Bakhtiar Ahmedov, Valim Babajanov, Saidullo Shakirov, while Isroil Kholdorov, an Uzbek opposition activist, disappeared on July 10.

“We’re afraid these men have been handed over to Uzbek authorities and that their lives are in danger,” said Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director Holly Cartner, referring to the four most recent cases. “Kyrgyzstan is responsible for the safety of refugees and asylum seekers in its territory, and it must find these men.”

The previous day, the United States embassy in Bishkek expressed concern at the detention and likely return to Uzbekistan of two registered refugees, and urged Kyrgyzstan to respect international conventions on refugee rights and torture. The embassy statement referred to members of an earlier group comprising four registered refugees - Jahongir Maksudov, Rasul Pirmatov, Odiljon Rahimov and Yakub Tashbaev - and asylum-seeker Fayezjon Tajihalilov, who were extradited to Uzbekistan on August 9.

In the latest case, Kyrgyz authorities have responded by denying everything. Police in Osh say they were not involved in any detentions, while the prosecutor general’s office said it had not received any Uzbek requests to extradite people who had applied for refugee status.

That claim is disputed by Aziza Abdrasulova, the director of Kylym Shamy, a human rights centre, who said the Uzbek authorities have informed their Kyrgyz counterparts of 26 people they want to have detained.

“At present, the [Kyrgyz] state is not fulfilling its obligations with regard to refugees, and is in fact violating these obligations through such actions [as secret detention and extradition]. I think that if Kyrgyzstan cannot or does not wish to fulfil its international obligations, it must revoke them. Then the whole world will know… and refugees will not come here,” said Abdrasulova.

Khurnisa Makhardinova, a lawyer with the Adilet human rights group, which works on refugee rights, said disappearances were now a regular occurrence, “It is becoming the system, and has reached the point where many refugees want to return home because they’re scared they may be forcibly and secretly extradited.”

Makhardinova attacked the authorities’ response – or rather failure to respond – calling it “a policy of silence”.

“They pretend nothing is happening, even though this is above all the responsibility of the authorities,” she added.

Tursunbek Akunov, the chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s official human rights commission, told IWPR his agency was looking into the matter, and blamed police chiefs for ignoring Kyrgyzstan’s own laws and pandering to Uzbekistan.

“The Kyrgyz authorities place insufficient value on the UN convention on refugees, while our secret services carry out the bidding of their Uzbek colleagues,” said Akunov, alleging that unless action was taken against the officers concerned, Kyrgyzstan would face international ignominy.

Political analyst Nur Omarov is in no doubt why the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, which swept to power on a wave of pro-democracy hopes in March 2005, now appears to have dumped its concern for human rights.

Uzbekistan is a large and irascible neighbour, and the Kyrgyz depend on it for energy supplies. The leadership in Tashkent was alarmed by the March revolution, in which Askar Akaev was summarily removed as Kyrgyz president, and angered by Bishkek’s decision to allow 400-plus refugees to go abroad, since the implication was that it was unsafe for them to go back to Uzbekistan.

Bakiev is due to visit Tashkent at the end of September, and a few swift extraditions may improve relations beforehand.

“By doing this, Kyrgyzstan has decided to show loyalty to Uzbekistan,” said Omarov. “The aim is to restore the economic and political partnership before winter sets in. Kyrgyzstan is reliant on Uzbek gas supplies, so extraditing refugees may be a step to prevent possible hitches during the negotiations on gas supplies and debt payments.”

Meanwhile, the remaining refugees and asylum-seekers in southern Kyrgyzstan fear they will be used as currency in the transaction between the two governments.

“I am so tired of being a refugee that I sometimes think that if I get this status, I will hand myself over to the Uzbek authorities,” said one young man who is an asylum-seeker in Osh. He is well aware of the consequences – his younger brother was recently extradited to 13 years in prison after being extradited from Kyrgyzstan.

“I am scared of being followed, so I try to stay inconspicuous. There are rumours among the refugees that the Uzbekistan secret services kidnap refugees and take them across the border by force. The recent disappearances confirm this,” he said.

A human rights activist who came to Kyrgyzstan eight months ago said he knew of 14 people who had disappeared, most likely abducted by the Uzbek secret police.

“We thought Kyrgyzstan was a more democratic country that Uzbekistan, and until recently we felt fine here. But recent developments show Kyrgyzstan is gradually turning into a totalitarian state where dissent is crushed,” he said.

“It is frightening to go out of doors because you don’t know whether you’ll be kidnapped by the Uzbek secret services. We hide in our rented apartments like trapped animals.”

Taalaibek Amanov is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

(The names of interviewees have been withheld out of concern for their safety.)
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