Uzbekistan + 1 more

Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek refugees forcibly returned

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Rights activists outraged as Kyrgyz government sends Andijan refugees home.

By Aida Kasymalieva in Bishkek and Jalil Saparov in Jalalabad (RCA No. 387, 15-Jun-05)

Civil society leaders in Kyrgyzstan have reacted angrily to the forced repatriation of four refugees who fled neighbouring Uzbekistan after last month's massacre of civilian protesters by government troops in the city of Andijan.

The men -- who have been named as Dilshod Khajiev, Tavakal Khajiev, Abdubais Shakirov and Mukhammad Kadyrov -- were among more than 500 Uzbek citizens who sought asylum across the border immediately after the May 13 violence.

Observers say the four were handed back to the Uzbek authorities on the night of June 9, apparently after criminal cases were opened against them at home.

There is also concern about a further dozen people who were taken from the camp in the Suzak district of Kyrgyzstan's Jalalabad region - set up to house the Uzbek asylum seekers - and are still being detained by Kyrgyz security officials.

In the meantime, the refugees are coming under increasing pressure to leave Kyrgyzstan - both from the local population and their own relatives who, observers say, are being forced by the Uzbek authorities to talk them into returning home.

Eidil Baisalov, head of a coalition of Kyrgyz non-governmental organisations, called For Democracy and Civil Society, told IWPR that on June 9 the Kyrgyz officials of the National Security Service, NSS, took 16 people from the Suzak camp.

"According to information from the prosecutor's office and the NSS, criminal cases were opened against these people in Uzbekistan," said Baisalov. "As it was impossible to conduct an investigation at the refugee camp, they were taken to the NSS office in Jalalabad."

Baisalov added that, according to the NSS, the group included people who had escaped from prison in Andijan. Some were apparently businessmen who had been locked up on charges of religious extremism, and others were allegedly members of the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

The violence in Andijan originally began after armed locals released prisoners from a government jail, including a number of businessmen charged with religious extremism.

The Uzbek government regularly uses charges of religious extremism and of membership of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir to silence its critics.

The Kyrgyz foreign ministry confirmed to IWPR that 16 people had been removed from the Suzak camp.

A spokesperson for the NSS claimed not to know whether any of these people had been extradited.

But a number of international bodies -- including Amnesty International, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and Human Rights Watch, HRW -- have confirmed that the four men in question were taken from this group and handed over to the Uzbek authorities.

The move has caused anger amongst Kyrgyz human rights bodies.

"Kyrgyzstan should not have extradited Uzbek refugees to Karimov's government," Tolekan Ismailova, leader of the NGO Civil Society Against Corruption, told IWPR. "By doing this we showed that Kyrgyzstan is not a democratic country, but a country that supports a totalitarian and repressive regime."

"This news made our hair stand on end," echoed Baisalov. "This is a gross violation of international legislation, and a violation of national legislation on extradition... this step has immediately cancelled out everything positive done by Kyrgyzstan for the refugees."

Baisalov demanded a robust response from the Kyrgyz government, "It is unknown who ordered the extradition of the refugees... [The government] should explain to us what happened. We demand the immediate dismissal of the head of the NSS, Tashtemir Aitbaev."

"If Uzbek refugees were in fact extradited, then this should be thoroughly investigated...," Kyrgyzstan's acting first vice prime minister Felix Kulov told IWPR on June 10. "Kyrgyzstan must act in the framework of international agreements, with the participation of international organisations."

In a statement released on the same day, UNHCR said that any allegations that the four men were guilty of crimes would need to have been examined "extremely carefully" before they could legally be extradited to Uzbekistan.

And HRW reminded the Kyrgyz government that, regardless of any allegations of criminal activity, it is illegal to send a person to a country -- including, they said, Uzbekistan -- where they might be at risk of torture.

The US embassy in Bishkek also expressed Washington's "disappointment" at the move, in a statement released on June 13. The statement reported that American diplomats in Tashkent are urging the Uzbek government to afford due process to the four repatriated men.

In the meantime, observers say there is evidence that the Uzbek government is pressurising the families of refugees to visit them in the Suzak camp and talk them into returning home.

"The camp is surrounded by police and NSS officers, they do not let anyone in," said Ismailova. "But according to our investigations, on June 9 three buses travelling on the Andijan-Pakhtaabad route arrived, carrying relatives of the refugees."

Ismailova said that many of these relatives worked in the Uzbek security services.

Kyrgyz state ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu spoke of another way in which pressure is allegedly applied.

"Employees of the Uzbek security services intimidate relatives of refugees and force them to persuade the refugees to return to Uzbekistan," he told IWPR. "We learned that these relatives are threatened with imprisonment if they do not convince the refugees to go home."

Bakir uulu said that if refugees genuinely wish to leave Kyrgyzstan, they should be required to make a written statement confirming that their decision is voluntary.

An elderly man from the Kojoabad region in Uzbekistan, who wished to remain anonymous, insisted to IWPR that the best thing for the asylum seekers is to return to their homes.

"One young man came to our neighbouring village, and he was not touched by officers from the special services or bodies...," he said. "The rumours that refugees are arrested when they return home are lies. On the contrary, some of the people who suffered badly are given loans."

But many refugees that IWPR spoke to were less optimistic.

"We have no way back home, we will die there of the hands of executioners," said 60-year-old Ergash Ibragimov. "We have already witnessed something that will remain in our minds for the rest of our lives."

"We were not playing a game, we did not end up in Kyrgyzstan by mistake," agreed Makhamadjon Kadyrov. "We ran away from a rain of bullets that were flying in our direction. The people who are trying to persuade us to come home are being paid by the authorities. They are afraid they will be imprisoned for not carrying out the task."

"We are very worried that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow the Kyrgyzstan authorities may begin extraditing us to Uzbekistan," added Kadyrov added. "For us this is equivalent to death."

The refugees are also coming under mounting pressure from the population in the Suzak area, which includes ethnic Uzbeks, who are growing impatient with their presence. On June 14, the local Suzak aksakal, or council of elders, released a statement giving the refugees three days in which to go home.

"We understand very well that it is a difficult time for our neighbours in Uzbekistan, that we need to help them..." said Kimsan Tajibaev, an elderly man from the village of Barpy, in the Suzak district.

"But we must think of ourselves, of our children, of our lives," he added. "We do not want relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to go sour, we do not want any complications to arise as a result of which we simple Kyrgyz citizens would have to suffer."

Aida Kasymalieva is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service, based in Bishkek. Jalal Saparov, an IWPR correspondent in the Jalal region, contributed to this article.