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Kazakhstan: Letter Details Kazakh Involvement in Forced Return of Uzbeks

In late November 2005 at least nine Uzbek nationals, fleeing persecution, were forcibly returned from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. Four of the men were formally registered with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as asylum seekers and were therefore already within the asylum process.

Following these incidents Human Rights Watch conducted research into the circumstances that surrounded the forced return of these men to Uzbek custody. The outcome of the research supports the allegation that Kazakhstan law enforcement and security officers were party to the illegal detention of asylum seekers and others fleeing torture and persecution, held them incommunicado, denied them the right of access to legal counsel, and then forcibly transferred them to the custody of Uzbekistan’s law enforcement agents. It would appear that these transfers were conducted outside of any judicial or administrative review, appeal, process or oversight.

We write to you to express Human Rights Watch’s profound concern about these incidents, to offer you credible evidence that Kazakh law enforcement authorities were, in fact, involved in these illegal acts and to respectfully ask that you order a full investigation and hold accountable those responsible. We also respectfully call upon you, to provide public assurances that such incidents will not be repeated and that all refugees in Kazakhstan, including in particular those from Uzbekistan, will be protected from forced return.

Forced return of nine refugees fleeing religious persecution
Human Rights Watch views the forced return of registered asylum seekers with particular alarm. Four of the nine Uzbek nationals who were returned to Uzbekistan were registered as asylum seekers with the UNHCR, and were awaiting decisions on their claims when they were seized. All nine had fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan, beginning in the late 1990s.

According to Human Rights Watch research (see below) all the men were detained between 24 – 27 November 2005 in Shymkent. After the men had been detained, relatives knowing of their detentions but unaware of their fate, wrote to the prosecutor general of Kazakhstan requesting an investigation into the men’s detention, and asking for information regarding their whereabouts. In a reply dated January 27, (registered as document number 36/55-05), the office of the South-Kazakhstan province prosecutor stated that the detention of the nine men by Kazakh security agents “was not confirmed.” The letter further stated that the men had in fact been detained by Uzbek police in Tashkent district of Tashkent province, Uzbekistan, during an operation conducted on November 28-December 2, 2005.

Human Rights Watch research refutes that this is the case, and indicates that the men in fact were detained in Shymkent and returned to Uzbekistan, apparently in the absence of any administrative or judicial procedure.

We believe that a first group of five men was seized on November 24, 2005. They are:

1. Fakhrutdinov, Rukhiddin;
2. Kholmurodov, Abdurauf;
3. Mirganiev, Alijon;
4. Mirzakholov, Alisher;
5. Ibragimov, Abdurakhmon, who had registered his asylum application with UNHCR prior to being detained.

While Human Rights Watch has spoken to no one who witnessed a law enforcement operation during which the aforementioned men were detained, we have gathered circumstantial evidence that indicates that they were indeed seized on that day in Shymkent. According to first-hand Human Rights Watch interviews and other correspondence with third parties, Fakhrutdinov, Kholmurodov and Mirganiev were last seen by friends late at night in Shymkent on November 23, 2005 at Fakhrutdinov’s apartment, located at 93 district ‘Vostok,’ apartment 1. Mirzakholov and Ibragimov were last seen in Shymkent by friends and family on November 24, 2005. Ibragimov was last seen at the entrance to Fakhrutdinov’s building, at about 8:00 p.m., after which all trace of him was lost until he was acknowledged as in custody in Uzbekistan in December. Fakhrutdinov’s sister, Zuhro Fakhrutdinova, told Human Rights Watch that the family in Uzbekistan had received a call from an unidentified person on November 25 telling the family that Fakhrutdinov was in custody in Kazakhstan and that they should hire an attorney and come to Shymkent. When relatives went to Shymkent, Fakhrutdinova said, the Kazakh authorities denied having her brother in custody. As noted above, all of the five men had fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan, and are not known to have expressed any intention to voluntarily return to Uzbekistan prior to having been affirmed as in custody in Tashkent.

On November 27, 2005, four more Uzbek nationals were detained at 87 Shkolnaia Street in Shymkent by people who said they were from a local Department of Internal Affairs and the National Security Committee (KNB). They are:

1. Abdusamatov Tohir;
2. Shorahmetov Shokhirmat;
3. Rakhmonov Nozim;
4. Latipov Sharofuddin.

All but Latipov had registered as asylum seekers with UNHCR prior to being detained.

Human Rights Watch spoke at length with two eyewitnesses to the arrest operation, who themselves escaped detention. Interviewed separately, the two witnesses described the operation in consistent terms and provided detail about how they managed to escape capture. The two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they were having dinner with the four men listed above when law enforcement and security agents knocked at the courtyard gates. The agents identified themselves in Russian and in Kazakh as being from the South-Kazakhstan province UVD and demanded that the men open the gates to the courtyard of the house where they were staying. Since the Uzbeks were aware of the disappearances that had taken place on November 24, they did not open the gates but instead tried to flee, running away along the roofs of neighboring houses. Security agents followed them shooting and shouting “KNB! KNB!” One of the escapees also overheard their pursuers identify themselves to residents of neighboring houses as KNB.

All nine men are now in custody in Uzbekistan, where authorities have charged them with participation in illegal religious organizations. Latipov’s and Rakhmonov’s trials are expected to start March 30. According to Memorial, a prominent Russian human rights organization, Fakhrutdinov, a former imam who had been sought by the Uzbek government since 1998 for suspected leadership of a “Wahhabi organization,” is charged with “infringement of constitutional order” and “illegal border crossing.” Very little is known about the men’s well-being in custody. However, we are deeply concerned about their safety and well-being due to Uzbekistan’s well-documented record on the torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police and security custody. In 2003, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, found torture in Uzbekistan to be “systematic.”

Human Rights Watch research found that detainees charged with religion-related offenses, have routinely been victims of systematic torture. We have documented evidence that Uzbek law enforcement have resorted to a number of different methods of torture and inhuman treatment, including the use of electric shock, beatings with truncheons, rape and other sexual abuse, asphyxiation, burning body parts with lit cigarettes, and psychological abuse, including threats to harm a detainee’s relatives.

The returnees have had some sporadic access to counsel, and we are deeply concerned that they will not receive a fair trial. Criminal trials which fail to meet basic requirements of due process under international law are a regular feature in Uzbekistan and reflect far- reaching failings to respect international human rights obligations. There are deep reservations over the independence of the judiciary, defendants do not enjoy regular access to their counsel of choice, trials are not always held in public, defendants in practice do not enjoy the presumption of innocence, and defense counsel are often prevented or unable to plead a proper defense case on behalf of their clients, or clients are not free to insist on presenting a defense. No international agency, including the UNHCR or the ICRC, has had access to the men in custody.

We believe the men had a well-founded fear of persecution in Uzbekistan due to their identity as “independent Muslims” —nonviolent Muslim believers whose religious practices, beliefs and associations fall beyond state-approved Islam—and as followers of Imam Obidkhon Nazarov. Human Rights Watch has documented the arrest, torture, public degradation and incarceration by Uzbek authorities of independent Muslims. In our 2004 report, Creating Enemies of the State, we identified as among the primary targets of this persecution those associated with Imam Nazarov.

Other possible forced returns from Kazakhstan
Human Rights Watch has reason to believe that seven additional men now in Uzbek custody—Bakhodir Aliev, Mukhammad Abdukodirov, Shokir Shokirov, Nasibullo Makhsudov, Azamuddin Kosimjonov, Abdurauf Khamidov, and Abdusamat Karimov—were also detained in Kazakhstan and forcibly handed over to Uzbek authorities in the absence of judicial or administrative proceedings or oversight. According to information Human Rights Watch received from people close to the men, some of the men have said they were detained in Kazakhstan, and at least one was in Shymkent when relatives last heard from him, before he was acknowledged to be in Uzbek custody. These men are accused of membership in ‘Akramia,’ a banned Islamic movement; some also stand accused of participation in the May 13, 2005 demonstration in Andijan that preceded the government massacre of hundreds of civilians. Makhsudov, Shokirov and Khamidov were among a group of twenty-three Andijan businessmen whose arrest and trial on charges of “religious extremism” triggered the Andijan uprising and protests.

Trials of the returned men are scheduled to start soon in Tashkent. The return of the men to Uzbekistan has placed them at risk of torture. This torture may include attempts to secure “confessions,” on which to justify long prison sentences for the men.

Human Rights Watch suspects that the trials of these men will follow a pattern of unfair trials that have characterized the prosecutions of other people charged with offenses related to the Andijan uprising. Since the Andijan massacre, Human Rights Watch has documented a massive government crackdown to conceal the truth about the Andijan killings and documented the apparent fabrication of evidence that would support the official version of events. Human Rights Watch has recorded more than a dozen cases in which people accused of participation in the Andijan demonstration were coerced into making statements after being subjected to torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment. The Uzbek government has held a series of trials—all but one of them closed from public scrutiny—in which more than 200 Uzbek citizens have been accused of violence in Andijan. In November and December 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights repeatedly expressed her deep concern about the fairness of these trials. Her concerns are not isolated, and the trials have widely been assessed as fundamentally flawed, unjust and unsound.

Human Rights Watch also has information which suggests that Kazakhstan law enforcement officials have threatened to return additional Uzbek asylum seekers since the detentions in Shymkent. According to detailed reports received by Human Rights Watch from people close to the case, police detained registered asylum seekers Khairullo Tojiev and Abduvasit Sadykov on February 24, 2006 in Almaty and brought them to the Zhetisuisky District Police Department in Almaty. The men were released from custody on orders to return for further questioning the next day. The next day, Tojiev and Sadykov were taken to the office of the head of the Criminal Investigation Department of Almaty at the Department of Internal Affairs headquarters, where they were questioned about other Uzbek refugees in Kazakhstan, the Andijan events, and whether they knew anyone from Andijan living in Almaty. After the questioning, police told Sadykov and Tojiev that they had received a fax from Uzbek authorities requesting their extradition.

KNB officers also interrogated Sadykov and Tojiev at police headquarters on February 25, demanding, among other things, that they disclose the whereabouts of Imam Nazarov, who was at that time a recognized refugee and who has since been resettled to a third country, and Gabdurafih Temirabaev, a registered asylum seeker. According to Sadykov and Tojiev, the KNB officers threatened that if they did not provide the agents with the information they were seeking, they could “disappear” Tojiev and Sadykov and could then secretly return them to Uzbekistan. The detainees alleged that the officers said, “We have the full right to hand you over to Uzbekistan. We will kidnap you and we won’t admit it. Even the UN won’t be able to do anything for you! You should find us Nazarov.”

Police and KNB officers transferred Tojiev and Sadykov to the city prosecutor’s office to obtain an arrest warrant, and the men were finally released after the city prosecutor refused to issue one.

The threats against Tojiev and Sadykov strongly suggest that their safety and protection from forced return to Uzbekistan is in jeopardy. Additionally, the threats cast further doubt on claims that Kazakh authorities were not involved in the capture and forced return of the nine refugees in late November and strengthen suspicions that the seven men discussed above were also detained in Kazakhstan and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan’s international obligations
All of the Uzbek nationals mentioned in this letter fled their country of origin because they faced the risk of persecution and torture in Uzbekistan in retaliation for their religious beliefs or affiliation. The forcible return of Uzbek religious dissidents to Uzbekistan places them at risk of torture. This violates Kazakhstan’s obligations under article 3 of the United Nations Convention against Torture, ratified by Kazakhstan in 1998, which prohibits without exception the return or extradition of someone to another state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

Because Kazakh authorities have denied that the men were detained in Kazakhstan, the implication must be that their detention and return were carried out extra-judicially, with no judicial or administrative oversight. With regard to the four registered asylum seekers, this would mean that Kazakhstan’s obligation not to return persons to persecution (non-refoulement), which arises from article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by Kazakhstan in 1999, as well as international customary law, have been violated. It would also mean that the men’s right to due process in the determination of their claims for asylum were ignored.

The circumstances that caused the men to flee from Uzbekistan suggest that the other five men could also, in fact, have been asylum seekers who had not had a practical opportunity to exercise their rights to lodge an asylum claim. As noted above, they had fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan and would have been able to credibly argue a well-founded fear of persecution upon return.

Particularly in view of Kazakhstan’s aspirations to the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009, the government should fully comply with its international obligations and respect international norms and standards. We hope we can count on your leadership to ensure that the Kazakh government:

  • conducts a thorough and independent investigation of the returns described above;

  • prosecutes any Kazakh officials whom the investigation finds to have been responsible for illegal acts or for covering up illegal acts;

  • presses the Uzbek authorities to grant unrestricted access to international monitors to visit the men while in detention, and ensure that the men are able to exercise their right to private meetings with their lawyers;

  • presses the Uzbek authorities to ensure that the trials are held in public and are subject to international monitoring for their adherence to due process and international standards;

  • provides assurances that there will be no repeat of the returns such as those that took place in November 2005 and that asylum seekers will not be threatened with being forcibly returned to their country of origin;

  • complies fully with its obligations under the Convention against Torture, and protects in practice persons who are at risk of torture against return;

  • complies fully with its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The Kazakh authorities should 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 denial to recognize them as refugees.
  • I thank you for your attention to the concerns in this letter and welcome a constructive dialogue with your government on his matter.

    Sincerely,

    Holly Cartner
    Executive Director
    Europe and Central Asia division

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