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Kyrgyzstan: Ensure Safety of Refugees

Letter to Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev

We call on you to use your good offices to protect the safety of refugees fleeing violence in Uzbekistan and seeking safe haven in Kyrgyzstan.

As a matter of priority, we urge you to keep the border between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan open for the duration of this crisis and to ensure that border posts are sufficiently staffed. We are disturbed by reports that your government is considering limiting to five days the period for refugee crossings into southern Kyrgyzstan. We urge you to amend this decision and keep the border open in conformity with international law on the protection of refugees, including the right to seek asylum provided under article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We note that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also urged your government and the government of Uzbekistan to leave the border open to all civilians at every crossing point.

In addition, we have received reports that Kyrgyz border officials are insisting that persons fleeing the violence in Uzbekistan present valid passports at the border in order to gain refuge. This practice contravenes the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, and should stop immediately. As you know, many people in crisis, particularly injured people, are not able to bring documentation with them before taking the desperate step of fleeing their homeland. Article 31 of the 1951 Convention takes account of this and specifies that a refugee should not be penalized for seeking illegal entry to a country when there is a threat to his or her life or freedom.

It is also imperative that Kyrgyz authorities not force refugees to return to Uzbekistan. Returns at this time would be premature. The international community has not had access to Andijan, and there has been no assessment of whether conditions would allow for return in safety and dignity. In addition, a broader crackdown is feared, and would likely include the persecution of returned asylum seekers. The return of people to unsafe conditions would be in violation of the international principle of non-refoulement.

Voluntary return should not be organized until it is deemed safe; we urge you to defer to the expertise of international agencies, including the UNHCR, when assessing whether conditions in Uzbekistan are safe for return. In addition, we remind you that it is a violation of the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to return a person to a country where he or she faces a real risk of torture. We are concerned that persons who sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan would be detained in Uzbekistan on trumped-up charges if they returned and would be at risk of torture. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture found that torture in Uzbekistan is systematic.

We further urge you to give UNHCR and other relevant agencies time to process refugee status claims and to ensure people access to a refugee status determination proceeding.

We commend you for your timely cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the UNHCR, which we encourage you to continue. Together with these groups your government is providing an essential service and humanitarian assistance.

We would also request that your government’s position on the events that began with the gunmen’s assault on the prison in Andijan take into account the responsibility of the government of Uzbekistan for excessive force subsequently used by government troops against demonstrators elsewhere in the city. We are concerned also that you have laid the blame for the violence on so-called Islamic extremists whom you allege were involved in the protests without calling on the Uzbek government to account for its use of excessive and indiscriminate force in suppressing various demonstrations. So far there is no evidence that groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or Hizb ut-Tahrir were involved in the protests, but there are credible reports of Uzbek forces firing into crowds that included unarmed civilians, with hundreds of casualties resulting.

The government of Kyrgyzstan has the opportunity to exercise a leadership role in the region by taking a principled position and pressing for accountability for the recent bloodshed in Uzbekistan. You are especially well-placed to do so, as you experienced the effect that the killing of six unarmed demonstrators by police in Aksy, Kyrgyzstan had on the entire country.

Regardless of the identity or affiliation of the persons involved in protests, the government of Uzbekistan is obligated under international law to exercise restraint and proportionality. We look to the government of Kyrgyzstan to reiterate these international principles and to make clear that it condemns the excessive use of force by Uzbek law enforcement.

We thank you for your attention to the above concerns.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive director, Europe and Central Asia division

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