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The government of Kazakhstan must investigate the forced return of Uzbek nationals who sought refuge in Kazakhstan, and hold accountable the officials responsible, Human Rights Watch said today.

“These men went to Kazakhstan seeking safety, but now face torture and imprisonment,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakh government shares responsibility for their fate and must come clean about its role in their illegal detention and return.”

In November 2005, nine Uzbek men living in southern Kazakhstan, including registered asylum seekers, were “disappeared” and were later acknowledged to be in Uzbek custody. Kazakh officials deny they were responsible for seizing and transferring them.

But new evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch points to the direct involvement of Kazakh law enforcement and security agents in the seizure and return of four of the men.

The Uzbek nationals had all fled to Kazakhstan starting in the late 1990s, escaping religious persecution in Uzbekistan. The trial of two of the returnees for religion-related offences is scheduled to start in Tashkent on March 30.

In a six-page letterhref> to President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch detailed allegations that Kazakh agents were responsible for the initial, unacknowledged, detention and forcible return of the men, including four registered asylum seekers, in November 2005. Human Rights Watch urged President Nazarbaev to publicly pledge that there would be no repeat of such incidents.

“It is a violation of international law to return people to a place where they will be persecuted and tortured,” said Cartner. “Kazakh officials had an obligation to know the risk these men faced if returned, but sent them back anyway.”

Uzbekistan’s record on torture is well documented. Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern for the fate of the nine men because they have been identified as religious Muslims who practiced their faith outside state controls. All of them now face criminal charges in Uzbekistan, largely due to their religious affiliations. Human Rights Watch research has revealed that police mistreatment of persons arrested for independent religious activity is particularly harsh and has included the use of electric shock, rape, and brutal beatings.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which received notice on March 17 ordering that it close its office in Uzbekistan, has not been allowed access to the returnees in Uzbek custody.

The Human Rights Watch letter details the accounts of two eyewitnesses who placed Kazakh police and security agents at the scene of the detention of four Uzbeks on November 27, 2005. The eyewitnesses, also Uzbek asylum seekers who fled religious persecution in their home country, described their harrowing escape when agents, who said they were Kazakh police and KNB – national security services, formerly KGB – raided an apartment where the men were having dinner. The two eyewitnesses managed to escape capture by fleeing over the rooftops as Kazakh officers chased and shot at them.

Those who were not able to escape were apparently detained, and later confirmed to be in Uzbek custody. This can only have taken place by way of forcible return. Three of these men, Tohir Abdusamatov, Shokhirmat Shorakhmetov, and Nozim Rakhmonov were asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR. The trial of Rakhmonov and of a fourth man, Sharofuddin Latipov, is scheduled to begin on Thursday in Tashkent. The men face serious criminal charges based on their religious beliefs and affiliations.

Another five Uzbek nationals were “disappeared” several days earlier, on the night of November 24, 2005. Evidence indicates that Imam Rukhiddin Fakhrutdinov and four other men – Abdurauf Kholmurodov, Alijon Mirganiev, Alisher Mirzakholov and Abdurakhmon Ibragimov – all believed to be independent Muslims associated with Imam Obidkhon Nazarov (a well-known independent Muslim leader wanted by Uzbek authorities for supposed leadership of a “Wahhabi group”) were taken from Fakhrutdinov’s apartment. Ibragimov had previously registered as an asylum seeker with the UNHCR.

After the men’s “disappearance,” Imam Fakhrutdinov’s family received an anonymous phone call saying that he and the others were in detention in Kazakhstan. But Kazakh authorities denied they had the men. Fakhrutdinov and the other four men were finally discovered to be in custody in Uzbekistan, where they are now at risk of torture and face serious criminal charges.

Thus far, Kazakh authorities have not acknowledged their involvement in the detention or the illegal returns.

“The international community should insist on a full account of what happened and how these asylum seekers and others ended up in Uzbek custody,” said Cartner.

Human Rights Watch expressed its intention to monitor the trials of the returnees and encouraged diplomatic representatives in Tashkent, including those of Kazakhstan, to do the same.

Forcible returns in the face of risk of torture or other inhuman and degrading treatment violate Kazakhstan’s obligations under the Convention against Torture, ratified by Kazakhstan in 1998, which prohibits such returns without exception. The return of the four registered asylum seekers also violates Kazakhstan’s obligation not to return persons to persecution, which arises from article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, ratified by Kazakhstan in 1999.

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