Kazakh authorities have forcibly returned ten persons who had fled persecution in Uzbekistan, in violation of Kazakhstan’s international commitments, Human Rights Watch said today. A second group of Uzbeks missing in Kazakhstan are feared to be at risk of “disappearance” and forcible return.
“Uzbekistan is well-known for its brutal treatment of religious detainees,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “By sending these men back to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has placed them at great risk of torture and violated its international agreements.”
A Tashkent defense attorney told Human Rights Watch that ten men forcibly returned to Uzbekistan are now in the custody of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tashkent. According to the lawyer, Kazakh authorities arrested the men on November 28 in Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, and handed them over to the Uzbek authorities at the border between the two countries later that same night (3 a.m. on November 29). It did not appear that the Kazakh authorities followed any official extradition procedure or that there was any judicial review of the cases before the handover. One of the ten men forcibly returned to Uzbekistan is Nozim Rakhmonov, an asylum-seeker who had registered his application with UNHCR prior to being detained.
“Back in July, the government of Kazakhstan withstood pressure from the Uzbek government and refused to return a recognized refugee—Lutfullo Shamsuddinov—to torture,” said Cartner. “With this latest move, the Nazarbaev government has turned its back on the most fundamental human rights principles.”
The asylum-seeker Rakhmonov and another man forcibly returned, Sharafutdin Latipov, stand accused by the Uzbek government of “Wahhabism”—a term the government uses to brand as extremists those Muslims who practice their faith outside of government mosques or otherwise beyond state controls. The other eight men now in Uzbek custody, including Azomodin Kosimjonov, are accused of membership in “Akramia,” a banned Islamic movement led by imprisoned religious leader and mathematics teacher Akram Yuldashev. Some have also been accused of participation in the May 13 demonstration in Andijan that preceded the government massacre of hundreds of civilians.
“We are deeply concerned for the safety of these men in Uzbek custody,” said Cartner.
Little is known about the charges against the second group of men believed to have been arrested this week in Kazakhstan. It is not known whether they remain in Kazakhstan or have been forcibly returned to Uzbekistan. At least three of the men detained by Kazakh authorities—Abdurakhman Ibragimov, Tohirjon Abdusamatov, and Shoimat Shorakhmedov—were registered asylum-seekers. One of the men believed to be in custody is Rukhiddin Fakhrutdinov, a former imam from Tashkent sought by the Uzbek government since 1998 for suspected leadership of a “Wahhabi organization.” Unable to locate Fakhrutdinov, the Uzbek government relentlessly pursued his family. Authorities arrested and convicted the imam’s wife, and detained his daughter, using psychological abuse, and threats of physical abuse and retribution against relatives.
Fakhrutdinov’s sister, Zuhro Fakhrutdinova, told Human Rights Watch that the family had received a call from an unidentified person on November 25 telling the family that Fakhrutdinov is in custody and that they should hire an attorney and come to Shymkent. Fakhrutdinova, who is in Kazakhstan searching for her brother, said the Kazakh authorities deny having him in custody.
Human Rights Watch is concerned about possible “disappearances”—persons detained without acknowledgement by the government that they are in custody. The arrests of Uzbeks in southern Kazakhstan reportedly began on November 23. The families of those missing say Kazakh officials deny having the men in custody. In addition to the imam, Alisher Mirzakholov, Abdurauf Kholmuratov, Alijon Mirganiev, Farkhod Islamov, and Shoimat Shorakhmedov are among the missing. All are wanted by Uzbek authorities on charges of “religious extremism.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government of Kazakhstan to provide information about the men’s whereabouts and, if they are in custody, allow them immediate access to their attorneys, and bring legally cognizable charges, or release them.
Kazakhstan’s arrest of Uzbeks seeking protection from repression at home comes as Kazakhstan’s own rights record is under scrutiny. Ahead of the December 4 elections, the government has cracked down on independent media and the political opposition. The pre-election environment has been marred by the detention of opposition activists on trumped up charges, violations of freedom of assembly, and allegations of physical attacks on relatives of opposition leaders. Local groups charged that the Nazarbaev government has illegally seized opposition newspapers and denied the opposition equal access to the media.
“The government of Kazakhstan had an opportunity with these elections to prove that it was prepared to be a rights-respecting member of the international community, but it has failed miserably,” said Cartner. Human Rights Watch expressed its concerns to the Kazakh government about repressive trends in advance of the vote.
The December presidential election has been widely seen as a test of Kazakhstan’s commitment to human rights standards and fitness to head up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a position sought by the government. In its preliminary report on the lead-up to elections, the OSCE noted violations of the rights to freedom of expression by the media, and freedom of assembly and association by the political opposition.
“With such widespread rights violations surrounding the election, the government of Kazakhstan has essentially forfeited its bid for the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009,” said Cartner. “The international community should make clear to the government that flagrant disregard for its rights obligations will carry serious consequences.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds the right to seek asylum from persecution. As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and the Convention against Torture, Kazakhstan cannot return a person to any country where he or she would face a risk of torture. In a 2003 report on Uzbekistan, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture found that torture was “systematic” in Uzbekistan. Torture of religious detainees has been particularly severe.