Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan: No progress on Andijan refugee four
"The threat of their extradition is there. It's possible and we cannot exclude it," Anna Mee, a UNHCR national protection officer and acting officer-in-charge, said from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
The four men, as well as a fifth described as an asylum seeker, are currently being held at a detention centre in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, in defiance of an extradition request by Uzbekistan for their alleged involvement in last spring's bloody demonstration in the southeastern Uzbek city of Andijan.
Up to 1,000 people may have been killed when Uzbek security forces attempted to quell anti-government demonstrations in the city.
Tashkent, which places the death toll at 187, has adamantly refused all calls for an international inquiry into the 13 May uprising.
In the ensuing chaos after the event, hundreds of Uzbeks fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan for their safety. Originally classified as asylum seekers, almost 440 of those who registered were granted refugee status by UNHCR and later airlifted to Romania for third-country resettlement in late July, while another 15 remained in custody, pending an extradition request by Tashkent.
Eleven of them were later granted UNHCR-mandated refugee status and subsequently flown to London on 16 September.
More than six months on, however, the fate of the four men remains unresolved, with UNHCR increasingly concerned over their future. If the Kyrgyz court upholds a legal decision in support of the Kyrgyz Department of Migration Services (DMS) who initially denied the men refugee status, the situation could worsen.
"I really don't know what will happen," Mee said, citing a recent decision by the Kyrgyz authorities to extradite a member of the Kazakh opposition back to his country. "It's really going to be a difficult fight," she said.
But Mee is not alone in her concern. On Friday Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote in an open letter to Kyrygz President Kurmanbek Bakiev not to return the five men where they faced a real risk of torture.
"We urge President Bakiev to uphold Kyrgyzstan's international legal obligations and protect people who sought refuge there," Holly Cartner, executive director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, said.
According to the watchdog group, Uzbek authorities used excessive and indiscriminate force against mostly unarmed protestors in Andijan and Tashkent's repeated call for the men's extradition was part of a massive campaign of repression that Uzbek authorities launched after the killings in an effort to silence and coerce testimony that would support the official version of events.
Dozens of individuals accused of participation in the Andijan protest have already been tortured into confessing, HRW says, and the authorities have used coerced statements to obtain convictions in closed proceedings that blatantly violated national and international law.
"Torture is rampant in Uzbekistan and fair-trial standards are routinely ignored," Cartner said. "Returning refugees to such a country is both illegal and unconscionable."
The return would violate the mandatory bar on the return of refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the prohibition on the return of persons to places where they are likely to be tortured, under the 1984 Convention Against Torture, HRW believes.
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