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Uzbek Refugees Face Uncertain Future

Interim authorities in Bishkek say there’s a possibility that hundreds of Uzbeks who fled into Kyrgyzstan in the last few days may be sent home.
By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova

Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan.
Photos by Sultan Kanazarov.

The future of hundreds of Uzbek refugees who have spilled over the border into Kyrgyzstan to escape the bloody government crackdown in Andijan has been thrown into doubt after Bishkek refused to rule out the possibility of extradition.


Official statistics suggest that around 540 Uzbeks had arrived in the Suzak region of Jalalabad by May 17, and were being dealt with in holding camps organised by the Kyrgyz emergencies ministry. But the number of refugees is growing daily.


Khadicha, who fled the violence in Andijan, told journalists who visited the camp on May 16 that they did not want to go back to Uzbekistan.


“The Uzbek police will simply beat us to death,” she said bluntly. “It's better to stay here. We would prefer to die in the land of the brotherly Kyrgyz than at the hands of our own bastards."


Parliamentary deputy Kadyrjan Batyrov, a leader of Jalalabad’s Uzbek minority, told IWPR that the refugees were terrified of being persecuted if they return. "[They] are insistent that they not be handed over to the Uzbek authorities,” he said.


But Kyrgyz security council secretary Miroslav Niazov has refused to rule out the possibility that "talks will be held on their extradition" at some stage.


He confirmed on May 17 that the Tashkent authorities had asked Bishkek to treat the refugees in a “good neighbourly” fashion, and had given a guarantee that the Uzbek government would take back them back after the situation in Andijan stabilised “in ten days”.


And on May 16, Kyrgyz border service chief Myrzakhan Subanov told the media that the Uzbeks would not be allowed to stay.


"Even if they are classified as refugees by international organisations, they cannot not be left on the territory of Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “If we do this we will insult Uzbekistan, as we have a treaty of eternal friendship with them."


Such remarks have sparked anger among human rights organisations in Kyrgyzstan.


The day after Subanov’s statement, a number of activists made a direct appeal to acting president Kurmunbek Bakiev. They sent him a letter saying, "Peaceful citizens, most of them women, children and the elderly, who fled bloody shooting and inevitable repressions, wish to stay here until peace is established in Uzbekistan.


"The government of Kyrgyzstan must not allow the extradition of peaceful citizens, including injured people, back to Uzbekistan. According to international conventions, we cannot extradite people to countries where executions and torture is practiced outside the legal system.


“The entire world witnessed the completely unjustified bloody suppression in Andijan on 13 May. The widespread and systematic use of torture in Uzbekistan has been confirmed by research and reports by the UN and law-enforcement organisations.


“Kyrgyzstan cannot interfere in Uzbekistan's internal affairs, but it can also not force citizens out of the country who have fled from the threat of death."


Kyrgyz parliamentarian and police general Rashid Tagaev agreed, saying, "If we hand these refugees over to the Uzbek authorities, it will be a black mark on our conscience. Everyone knows how they will be treated.”


Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu has, meanwhile, warned that the trickle of refugees could soon turn into a flood.


"If [President] Islam Karimov continues to suppress the people's uprising with cruelty and force, then the number of refugees may reach millions,” he said.


“The Bishkek government must give refuge status to the Uzbekistan citizens who have fled to Kyrgyz territory, without fear of Karimov's reaction. Then it will be possible to ask for humanitarian aid from international organisations, as the local economy will not be able to provide for even a thousand refugees."


Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO Coalition for Civil Society and Democracy, told IWPR that the refugees would have to be consulted on any decision about their future.


"If in ten days, some of them want to return, then by all means let them. But these are free people and should have the right to choose for themselves – the Uzbek government should not decide for them.


“The situation should not be that we put them in a cage and extradite them ten days later when a bloody dictator asks us to.


“Uzbekistan shot people and continues to do so. No government should decide the fate of these people – and we should not extradite them.”


Nazgul Turdubekova, a human rights activist, accused border service chief Subanov of being frightened of angering the powerful Karimov.


"Subanov did not have the moral or political right to make such a statement, as Kyrgyzstan is a signatory of international agreements according to which it is obliged to provide shelter to refugees who are in life-threatening conditions,” she noted. “Our civil society must demand that our government does not under any circumstances extradite the refugees to Uzbekistan."


And deputy ombudsman Sadyk Sherniyaz told IWPR, "I am categorically opposed to the refugees being thrown out of Kyrgyzstan.


“We are brotherly peoples – how can we ignore the events in Uzbekistan, let alone turn away from them? They are in great misery, and we must do everything to help them. If we do not do this, history will not forgive us."


Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is IWPR’s programme coordinator in Bishkek. Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek.


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