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Uzbek Refugees Face Extradition From Kazakstan

Kazak authorities applying own rules on asylum-seekers in the face of accepted international standards.
By Andrei Grishin

A group of refugees from Uzbekistan is in imminent danger of being sent back home because of new legislation and practices in Kazakstan which appear to be taking precedence over the international standards on the treatment of refugees to which the country has signed up. 

Human rights activists fear that if the asylum-seekers are sent back to Tashkent, they will face imprisonment and torture.

The 29 Uzbek nationals who were seeking asylum in Kazakstan were among a larger group of 45 individuals detained in June during a raid by law enforcement forces targeting illegal migrants.

Fifteen were subsequently released but 30 remained in custody because the authorities in Uzbekistan had filed extradition requests against them.

The Uzbek authorities accuse them of a range of offences including terrorism, religious extremism, and membership of banned Islamic groups, charges which the detainees deny.

Seventeen of them had obtained certificates from the UN refugee agency UNHCR stating that they were seeking asylum.

However, since new national legislation came into force in Kazakstan in January, all asylum claims, whether made to the government or UNHCR, are being referred to a special commission which decides whether to grant refugee status.

The commission reviewed the 30 cases in August, and turned all of them down. All but one of the asylum-seekers then lodged appeals against the rulings in court.

The exception was Khurshid Komilov, an ethnic Uzbek who unlike the rest is a national of Kyrgyzstan rather than Uzbekistan. He had not filed an asylum claim with the Kazak authorities, and in August UNHCR revoked the refugee status it had granted him earlier. This meant Komilov’s lawyers were unable to lodge an appeal, and the extradition request was acted on. Komilov was extradited to Uzbekistan on September 8.

The Kazak prosecutor general’s office refused to comment on why he was sent to Uzbekistan rather than his own country.(For more on this specific case, see Questions Over Kyrgyz National’s Extradition to Uzbekistan.)

Gulsara Altynbekova, head of the Almaty branch of the labour and welfare ministry’s Migration Committee, told IWPR why the commission turned down the asylum claims, saying, “We cannot recognise as a refugee any person who has been or is taking part in religious extremist terrorist organisations in his country of origin or from where he arrived.”

Once the appeals have been heard, the 29 are likely to face extradition to Uzbekistan.

According to Denis Jivaga, a lawyer with the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, there is little chance the courts will overturn the commission’s decision.

Although it is now using its own national legislation to rule on refugee cases, Kazakstan is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which places it under an obligation and thus remains obliged not to deport or extradite an individual to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.

There is strong evidence that torture is used against detainees in Uzbekistan, cited in reports by the United Nations Committee against Torture and in reports which Uzbek activists submitted to the UN in March.

UNHCR’s communications officer in Geneva, Babar Baloch, told IWPR that protections against extradition remained in force despite the change in the way Kazakstan was dealing with refugee applications.

"Under its new refugee law, Kazakstan has taken on since January 2010 responsibility for refugee status determination. Persons, under international human rights law – whether recognised as refugees or not – are entitled to protection against extradition in certain circumstances," he said.

Human rights defenders in Kazakstan and abroad argue that the refugee law is unclear in some areas, and that the commission’s reliance on evidence supplied by the Uzbek authorities raises serious questions about its rulings.

In line with the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Kazak law prohibits extradition or deportation of individuals if their lives would be at risk or they would face persecution for their religious beliefs or political views. But it also says elsewhere that claims will be turned down if asylum-seekers are accused of membership of a “banned organisation”, without specifying whether the group must be prohibited in Kazakstan as well as the other state.

Katherine Booth, who heads the migrants’ rights desk at the International Federation of Human Rights, says refusing refugee status on grounds of membership of a religious organisation banned in the individual’s home country runs contrary to the refugee convention.

“Their association with a [banned] religious group may have been fabricated or may be unproven, and this constitutes persecution on religious grounds,” Booth said.

The Kazak refugee commission appears to be basing its rulings in large part on evidence provided by Uzbekistan, the same state that is seeking extradition. This is a major departure from UNHCR practice, which is to seek information about a case from a range of sources.

An Almaty-based prosecutor who works with the Kazak migration police, said government institutions were obliged to collaborate with their counterparts in other states, but she recognised that this placed certain constraints on them.

“We have neither the right nor the opportunity to check whether an accusation that an individual has committed a criminal offence is justified,” she told IWPR. “We are obliged to accept it at face value.”

Jivaga says he does not blame the Kazak refugee commission, as it is merely doing what it is required to do by the current law. Instead, he says unsatisfactory legislation is compounded by a lack of political will in the Kazak government to honour its international obligations.

Although the law was intended to bring Kazakstan into full compliance with the refugee convention of which it is a signatory, there are fears it is having the reverse effect, so that Kazakstan is now giving precedence to bilateral and regional extradition arrangements over its continuing international commitments.

“It’s clear that for our state, regional agreements are more important than any international one,” Jivaga told IWPR.

Andrei Grishin is a staff member at the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.