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I am writing to express Human Rights Watch’s serious concerns about the Ukrainian government’s forced return of ten asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan on the night of February 14-15, in violation of international law.

I am writing to express Human Rights Watch’s serious concerns about the Ukrainian government’s forced return of ten asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan on the night of February 14-15, in violation of international law.

The group was removed without prior notification to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), despite clear guidance from UNHCR against their return without proper access to full and fair asylum procedures. Nine members of the group were registered with UNHCR as asylum seekers, and awaiting decisions on their claims. UNHCR’s requests to visit them in detention were not granted.

The nine had also applied for asylum with the Ukrainian authorities, but those applications had been rejected after what appear to have been cursory and accelerated procedures in which the applicants were not given the opportunity to be represented by legal counsel. Despite press reports that they declined to appeal the denial of their asylum claims, we understand that they were denied the opportunity to appeal, in violation of Ukrainian law. We particularly question why their asylum cases were so rushed and why they were deported so quickly despite interventions on their behalf by UNHCR.

Human Rights Watch understands that Uzbekistan had requested the men’s extradition, alleging their participation in the Andijan events of May 13, 2005. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations have documented the use by Uzbek authorities of excessive and indiscriminate force against mostly unarmed protestors in Andijan, killing hundreds of civilians. In the aftermath of this massacre, the Uzbek government launched a massive crackdown to conceal the truth about the killings and fabricate evidence to support the official version of events.

The risks faced by the group on their return to Uzbekistan are abundantly clear. People detained in Uzbekistan on charges related to religion or national security are routinely subjected to especially harsh treatment in custody. Those accused of participation in the Andijan events face a particular risk of torture or ill-treatment. Torture in Uzbekistan is an endemic and long-standing problem. Following a mission to Uzbekistan, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded in 2003 that torture in Uzbekistan was “systematic.” Statements from Ukrainian officials that the deportations of these individuals involved normal immigration enforcement suggest that Ukraine is turning a blind eye to Uzbekistan’s abysmal human rights record with respect to people who fit the profile of the men who were deported.

Human Rights Watch understands that a Simferopol court approved the extraditions prior to the men’s removal. But neither the existence of an extradition request, nor the approval of it by a court, have any bearing on the obligation of Ukraine under international law not to return an asylum seeker or refugee to a place where he or she has a well-founded fear of being persecuted or subjected to torture. Even after a court approves an extradition request, it is the responsibility of executive authorities to ensure that the person’s return does not violate international obligations, particularly the absolute prohibition to return a person to a place where he is likely to be tortured.

The obligation not to return persons to persecution (non-refoulement) arises from article 33 the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Ukraine has ratified, as well as international customary law. The obligation not to return persons to the risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, arises from article 3 of the Convention Against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Ukraine has ratified.

While refoulement under the Refugee Convention is prohibited as a matter of Ukrainian law, Ukraine currently lacks domestic legislation that provides a safeguard against return where the persons faces the risk of torture or other ill-treatment.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the safety of Uzbek asylum seekers in Ukraine and urges that the government of Ukraine take all measures to ensure their protection from forced return to Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch also recommends that the government take the following steps:

  • Immediately communicate its ongoing concern about the fate of the returned men to the Uzbek government and request that its diplomats in Tashkent be granted access to the men in detention.
  • Press the Uzbek authorities to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross and UNHCR unrestricted access to visit the men while in detention, and ensure that the men are able to exercise their right to private meetings with their lawyers.
  • Launch a thorough, independent investigation to clarify how the deportations were allowed to take place in contravention of Ukraine’s obligations under international law, and propose concrete measures to prevent any future such illegal deportations.
  • Enact legislation to ensure that persons who are at risk of torture are protected against return as a matter of law, and in the meantime put into place mechanisms to ensure that those at risk of torture are protected against return, in accordance with Ukraine’s international obligations.
  • Ensure that all persons who may be in need of international protection are given access to full and fair asylum procedures, as well as access to UNHCR, and ensure that asylum-seekers whose claims are rejected in the first instance are accorded the opportunity to appeal against the refusal of asylum.

Human Rights Watch stands ready to cooperate with the government of Ukraine to achieve progress in these important matters.


Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

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