Arrest of leading human rights activist highlights vulnerable position of asylum-seekers.
By Zamir Karajanov and Dilya Usmanova in Almaty (RCA No. 393, 06-Jul-05)
Amidst growing concern about the treatment of refugees from Uzbekistan who fled to Kazakstan following the Andijan uprising, a leading Uzbek human rights activist has been arrested by Kazak police.
Despite having been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Lutfullo Shamsuddinov was declared wanted by the authorities in Uzbekistan, at whose request the Kazak police picked him up.
A leading human rights activist, Shamsuddin had sought refuge in Kazakstan for fear of persecution because he had witnessed and reported the police shootings of demonstrators in Andijan on May 13.
"UNHCR is extremely concerned at the arrest of a refugee under its mandate," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a July 5 press conference. He added that forcing refugees to return to their country of origin was a contravention of the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees.
Shamsuddinov is currently being held at police headquarters in Almaty.
The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch warned that the Kazak authorities "seem ready to hand over a refugee to be tortured", and recalled that Shamsuddinov's colleague Saidjahon Zainabitdinov remained in custody in Uzbekistan, with "serious concerns about his well-being".
For many frightened Uzbeks, Kazakstan is the obvious place to hide. There is a long-established Uzbek community in the south, and in recent years there has been a steady stream of labour migrants from Uzbekistan, so an Andijan resident arriving in Kazakstan would not be conspicuous.
However, many of the incoming refugees are worried about what will happen to them. One ex-Andijan resident, Nodir, told IWPR that he had not been harassed by the Kazak authorities but was still watching his step. Despite being on good terms with his new neighbours, Nodir avoids telling them where he is from. "When people ask, I say I've come from Tashkent and I'm doing business in Kazakstan," said Nodir. "My neighbours might not understand if I told them where I have actually come from. I would seem suspicious from the outset."
Nodir and other Andijanis, who only have Uzbek passports, were especially unsettled when Kazak police on June 27-30 conducted another round of "Operation Migrant", a regular sweep to pick up people without the right residence papers. In Almaty alone, 200 Uzbek nationals were arrested, including some who were trying to go through the proper immigration procedures.
On July 1, the deputy head of Kazakstan's immigration police, Baltabek Ablaev, reported that his officers were investigating two of the Uzbeks for possible offences committed in Andijan.
Nodir believes that the Uzbek authorities are using extradition arrangements to find and eliminate anyone who witnessed the Andijan violence.
"It's dangerous for us to go out on the street during the day, so we only leave our homes to go for a walk when it's dark," said Nodyr.
The Andijan residents here are afraid to go back, and some -- like Shamsuddinov - have approached UNHCR seeking refugee status. "Around five families and about 27 people have appealed to us in connection with the Andijan incidents," said Narasimha Rao, a senior staffer with the UNHCR mission in Kazakstan.
The Kazak authorities have not officially acknowledged that there are actual or would-be political refugees in the country. Kazakstan does have procedures for granting political asylum, but immigration laws do little to protect the rights of refugees.
"Unfortunately, in practice this mechanism does not work," said Amina Shormanbaeva, a legal adviser with UNHCR. "I can't imagine a situation in which Kazakstan would recognise people from Andijan as refugees." At a press conference in Almaty on June 20, the head of UNHCR in Central Asia, Cesare Dupont, expressed the hope that Kazakstan would draft a new law on refugees which would bring it into line with international standards.
In the meantime, the UNHCR mission in Kazakstan has called on the international community, including the Kazakstan government, to intervene and prevent the extradition of Andijan refugees back to Uzbekistan.
But it is difficult to see how this can be achieved when the process of applying to the Kazak government for political asylum is fraught with so many bureaucratic obstacles. According to Shormanbaeva, the immigration agency used "any means it could" to block requests for political asylum.
The authorities are particularly reluctant to process applications submitted by people from other Soviet republics, for fear of offending the government concerned.
Rustem Lebekov, director of the Eurasian Centre for Political Studies, explained,"We do not have a policy for recognising political refugees -- we aren't Britain or America. Kazakstan is not a country where you can ask for political asylum." The Andijan refugees present the Kazak authorities with a particularly tricky problem, since taking them in might imply tacitly that Uzbekistan persecutes its citizens for political reasons. Kazakstan is in no hurry to damage its already fragile relations with the Uzbek leadership. "To call [the Andijanis] political refugees would means going against a national ally, and the authorities do not want to spoil relations with Uzbekistan," said Lebekov. According to Shormanbaeva, the immigrants understand the situation perfectly. "The refugees appeal to the UNHCR, and receive a refugee certificate after passing through our procedures," she said. The Shamsuddinov case demonstrates that even with UNHCR protection, Uzbek refugees are still vulnerable to extradition requests.
According to Dilshod, another refugee from Andijan, it is better to lie low than run foul of extradition procedures, "Many people went to Kyrgyzstan, but things are very difficult for them there. So we tried to come to Kazakstan, but it's not easy for us here either. Until it's decided whether or not we will be granted refugee status, we are forced to hide."
The names of refugees from Uzbekistan have been changed for reasons of safety.
Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty. Dilya Usmanova is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Uzbekistan.