Human Rights Watch sent a letter today to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev asking him not to extradite five Uzbek refugees who would likely face torture if returned to Uzbekistan.
Dear President Bakiev,
We are respectfully writing to you to raise an urgent concern about the possible forced return of five refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan in violation of international refugee and human rights law.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has formally recognized four of the five men—Yakub Tashbaev, Rasul Pirmatov, Jahongir Maksudov, Odiljan Rahimov—as refugees. The fifth, Mr. Tadjihalilov, is an asylum seeker; the UNHCR has yet to be granted access to him in order to assess his claim for refugee status under its mandate. All five men are currently in detention in Kyrgyzstan.
The Uzbek government has requested the extradition of the five men for their alleged involvement in violent acts during the protest in Andijan in May 2005. Human Rights Watch’s investigation has shown that the Uzbek authorities used excessive and indiscriminate force against mostly unarmed protesters in Andijan, killing hundreds of civilians. And in the aftermath of this massacre, the Uzbek authorities embarked on a massive crackdown to conceal the truth about the killings and fabricate evidence that would support the official version of the events.
Refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan were of particular interest to the Uzbek authorities as the majority of them were eyewitnesses to the massacre and willing to testify about the events. Over the summer of 2005, Human Rights Watch documented an unprecedented campaign launched by Uzbekistan to have these refugees forcibly returned.
On June 10, 2005, Kyrgyzstan forcibly returned four asylum seekers to Uzbekistan pursuant to an extradition request from the Uzbek authorities. That return was widely condemned by the international community at the time as refoulement—the forced return of refugees, which is prohibited by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (the “Refugee Convention”), to which Kyrgyzstan is a party. The Kyrgyz government later said that forced return of those four people was a mistake and promised to investigate the incident. We are particularly grateful that the Kyrgyz government subsequently recognized the danger that the more than 400 Uzbek refugees on its territory faced, and facilitated their evacuation to Romania.
We believe that the five individuals who currently face return to Uzbekistan would face grave danger, including the risk of torture, upon return. Their return would not only violate the mandatory bar on the return of refugees under the Refugee Convention, but also the prohibition on the return of persons to places where they are likely to be tortured under article 3 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party. Human Rights Watch’s extensive research in Uzbekistan, as well as the 2003 report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture found that torture there was “systematic.” Those accused of participation in the Andijan protest are at particular risk of torture: Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which the authorities coerced confessions from these individuals, using torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment.
These coerced confessions have formed the basis for criminal prosecutions, while the trials of individuals charged with crimes related to the May violence in Andijan blatantly violated international fair-trial standards. Uzbekistan’s courts are not independent, the defendants have no chance to mount a real defense, and the guilty verdicts are based exclusively on the defendants’ tainted confessions and testimonies from government witnesses. Dozens of individuals are being tried in closed trials in violation of Uzbek and international law. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, repeatedly expressed her deep concern about the fairness of the Andijan-related trials.
Our concerns about the fate of the five men in custody are deepened because of Kyrgyzstan’s recent extradition of Kazakh youth leader Makhambet Abzhan to Kazakhstan, despite the intervention of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Mr. Abzhan’s behalf. The twenty-year-old Abzhan, leader of the Patriotic Youth of Kazakhstan, an opposition organization, was forcibly returned to Kazakhstan on December 23, 2005. Abzhan submitted his request for asylum while being detained in the Preliminary Detention Facility of the Interior Department in Bishkek. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was also apprised of his request for asylum, and, on December 22, the UNHCR requested permission to visit him in his place of detention. Kyrgyz authorities did not give the UNHCR access to visit Abzhan prior to his forced return to Kazakhstan. This forced return not only violates the Refugee Convention’s prohibition on refoulement, but also violates article 4 of Kyrgyzstan’s own refugee law, which guarantees asylum seekers a full hearing on their claims.
With regard to the refugees facing possible return to Uzbekistan, we understand that the Bishkek City Court upheld Uzbekistan’s extradition request for four of the Uzbek refugees on December 13, 2005, and that the case is now on appeal with the Supreme Court, where it could be decided soon. Since extradition orders are not solely in the hands of the courts, but also require approval by executive authorities, we respectfully ask you to exercise your authority—consistent with Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under international law—not to return these refugees to Uzbekistan. Such an action would be looked upon by the international community as the fulfillment of Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to universal human rights principles.
We thank you for your attention to our concerns.
Europe and Central Asia division
Human Rights Watch
Refugee Policy Director
Human Rights Watch