The Kyrgyz authorities today sent four Uzbek asylum seekers back to Uzbekistan, which they had fled after the May 13 massacre in Andijan, Human Rights Watch said today. Such “forced” returns violate Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under international law.

Human Rights Watch has also documented how Uzbek authorities have pressured families of refugees, who had fled the Andijan violence, to persuade their relatives to return to Uzbekistan.

“The Kyrgyz government had an obligation to protect these four people, but instead it sent them back to persecution and almost certain torture,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

The Kyrgyz government has promised that it would punish the officials who handed the four men over to the Uzbek authorities.

The four men were registered as asylum seekers with U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), but their asylum claims had not yet been examined. A party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Kyrgyzstan has an obligation not to return people whose asylum claims have not yet been examined.

Such “forced” returns may also violate other human rights treaties, whether or not the men were refugees within the terms of the Refugee Convention. The Convention Against Torture, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, prohibits states from sending persons—no matter what their crime or suspected activity—to a place where they would be at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In 2003, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture found torture in Uzbekistan to be “systematic.”

The four men are Dilshod Khajiev, Tavakal Khajiev, Abdubais Shakirov and Mukhammad Kadirov. To date, Uzbek authorities have allowed no international monitoring of people detained in relation to the Andijan events.

On Thursday, Kyrgyz authorities took 16 asylum seekers into custody at the Jalal-Abad Municipal Police Department following an Uzbek request for the extradition of some of them. That evening, while the UNHCR representatives went back to the refugee camp to get food and mattresses for the detainees, the Kyrgyz authorities returned four of the detained asylum seekers to the Uzbek authorities.

Local representatives of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Internal Affairs showed Human Rights Watch identical statements that the asylum seekers had signed, giving their consent to be returned. Since there was no independent access to the men prior to the handover, Human Rights Watch had grounds to believe the statements to be coerced.

The action was in direct breach of the repeated assurances Kyrgyz officials gave to UNHCR that such returns would not take place.

Five of the remaining 12 asylum seekers in detention in Jalal-Abad belong to the group of 23 businessmen whose trial on trumped up charges of religious extremism triggered the May 13 protests in Andijan. They are Shamduddin Atamatov, Musajon Mirzaboev, Odil Maskhadaliev, Tursun Nazarov and Oktiboi Akbarov.

“In view of what happened yesterday it’s particularly important that Kyrgystan take all steps to protect the other 12 from persecution and torture. All 12 men should be immediately released and returned to the protection of the refugee camp,” Human Rights Watch said.

In Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch researchers have also found that Uzbek authorities are intimidating the families of the asylum seekers into persuading their relatives to return to Uzbekistan.

Human Rights Watch said Uzbek pressure on the families of the approximately 470 refugees in the new refugee camp in Sasyk, 25 miles from the Uzbek border, was evident. Earlier this week hundreds of relatives of the refugees arrived at the camp to press their family members to return to Uzbekistan. On Wednesday, for example, Human Rights Watch researchers saw five buses with Andijan license plates, with about 30 people in each, and several cars with Andijan license plates parked near the camp. Uzbek neighborhood and municipal authorities were also on the scene, supervising the families.

In sharp contrast to relatives who had come to the camp unsupervised in prior weeks to look for missing relatives, this group was visibly scared and avoided talking to Human Rights Watch or other human rights groups. Those who did speak uniformly recited that everything is fine in Andijan and that refugees are in no danger should they return.

“Alim A.,” a refugee in the camp, described this pressure to Human Rights Watch:

"A couple of days ago …my mother came. I managed to talk to her in private. She said that the whole way from Andijan, local government (hokimiat) officials in the bus were instructing them, ‘Yell, grab their hair and clothes, do whatever you have to bring them back.’ But my mother told me not to go back. She said that a friendly local policeman said that if I have something to eat and a place to sleep, I should not think about returning."

Several relatives left the camp in tears because, as a Kyrgyz migration official explained to Human Rights Watch, “their sons did not agree to go back.”

Two weeks ago, an elderly man told Human Rights Watch that local authorities in Andijan had coerced families to convince their relatives in the refugee camp to return to Uzbekistan. Visibly distraught, he explained that Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB) had been going house to house in the neighborhood, checking who lived in each home and who was “missing,” and pressuring the families to retrieve their relatives from the camp. The man had gone to Kyrgyzstan and begged his relatives to come home, but they refused, saying they would be arrested or killed. After being unable to convince them, he had asked the camp authorities to let him stay in the camp as well because he was too afraid to go back, but he said they had refused.

In previous years, Human Rights Watch has documented the arrest and torture of family members of people wanted by Uzbek police and security services.

Since the refugee camp was moved to Sasyk on June 4, it has been guarded by Kyrgyz security personnel with sniper rifles and closed to the press and nongovernmental organizations. It is accessible only through a series of checkpoints. Human Rights Watch was denied access to the camp all week until today, when authorities allowed the organization’s staff in for one hour.

Human Rights Watch called on the Kyrgyz government to uphold its international obligations and resist pressure to return any further asylum seekers before their asylum claims have been determined, unless UNHCR has been able to verify that each individual’s decision to return is truly voluntary. The organization also called on the Kyrgyz authorities to comply with its international obligation not to return any person where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be in danger of being tortured.

The Kyrgyz authorities must also respect the right of the families to seek asylum as well.

Human Rights Watch welcomed that UNHCR has spoken out publicly against the recent returns by Kyrgyzstan, but urged the agency to bolster its protection and monitoring capacity and ensure that refugees have full information about the specific threats they face upon return to Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch also called on the United States and the European Union to press the matter directly with the Kyrgyz government.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that one motivation for the Uzbek government to seek the return of asylum seekers from Andijan is to suppress their testimony about the bloody events of May 13.