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The government of Kyrgyzstan must not return four Uzbek refugees to Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today. With their Kyrgyz judicial appeals now exhausted, the fate of the four men, who have been in Kyrgyz custody since June 2005, is in the hands of the Kyrgyz government.

“These men have struggled for a year to avoid being sent back home to face brutal repression,” said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director. “Now the Kyrgyz government must do the right thing and refuse to send them back to Uzbekistan.”

The four men, Jahongir Maksudov, Rasul Pirmatov, Odiljon Rahimov and Yakub Tashbaev were among more than 400 Uzbek refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan following the May 13, 2005 massacre in Andijan. They have been in custody since they were detained by Kyrgyz authorities on June 9, 2005 following an extradition request by Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government has accused them of involvement in acts of violence during the Andijan events.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognized the four men as refugees and found countries willing to resettle the men in safety. But the Kyrgyz Department of Migration Services denied the men’s applications for refugee status. In February 2006, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court began hearing the refugees’ appeals of the department’s denials. The court upheld all of the department’s decisions, with the last court ruling issued June 13.

In a letter to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, Human Rights Watch said that by returning the four men the Kyrgyz government would violate the mandatory prohibition on the return of refugees under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which Kyrgyzstan ratified in 1996.

Human Rights Watch also said that because the four men are likely to face torture in Uzbekistan, returning them would violate the absolute prohibition on the return of persons to places where they risk torture, which is stated in article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Kyrgyzstan ratified that convention in 1997.

“Uzbekistan’s torture practices are well-documented,” said Cartner. “These four are at particular risk of torture because the Uzbek government is charging them with crimes related to the Andijan events.”

Several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have documented the Uzbek government’s efforts to conceal the truth about the Andijan killings and to manufacture evidence that would support the official version of events. In dozens of cases, the authorities coerced “confessions” from individuals, using torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment. More than 250 people have been convicted in a series of trials on the Andijan events, all but one of which were closed. The one trial that was open to monitors fell far short of international fair trial standards.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Kyrgyz government not to accept so-called diplomatic assurances from the Uzbek government that the four refugees would not be tortured if they were returned. “These assurances are worthless,” said Cartner. “They simply cannot guarantee the men’s safety.”

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