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The government of Kazakhstan must not return to Uzbekistan an Uzbek refugee currently in custody in the Kazakh city Almaty, Human Rights Watch said today. Gabdurafih Temirbaev, who fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan, would be at risk of torture and persecution if he were forcibly returned.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Kazakh authorities to clarify charges brought against him, grant him access to counsel and to a representative of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Temirbaev was granted refugee status by UNHCR just eight days before he was detained.

“Temirbaev risks torture and persecution if he were returned to Uzbekistan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakh government is developing a bad record on forced returns of refugees. This time it must comply with its international obligations.”

Temirbaev was detained on June 24 on what appear to be false pretenses by three men, two in plainclothes and one in police uniform, who claimed to be investigating a robbery in the neighborhood. According to unconfirmed reports, he is being held incommunicado at the Committee for National Security (KNB) in Almaty. UNHCR has had no access to Temirbaev and has received no official notification about charges brought against him. On June 30, UNHCR expressed its concern about Temirbaev’s detention and appealed to the Kazakh government not to deport him and to grant immediate access to him.

No information is available concerning whether Uzbekistan has requested Temirbaev’s extradition. In recent months, at least several dozen Uzbek nationals who were forcibly returned, without extradition requests, to Uzbekistan from other countries in the region were arrested and subjected to criminal charges upon return.

Temirbaev had been living in Kazakhstan since 1999, when he fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan. In a letter to the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, Human Rights Watch said that by returning Temirbaev the Kazakh government would violate the mandatory prohibition on the return of refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Kazakhstan ratified in 1999.

If returned to Uzbekistan, Temirbaev would be at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. Torture in police and security services detention in Uzbekistan is routine and well-documented. Temirbaev is at particular risk because he is an independent Muslim, a religious Muslim whose practices, beliefs and affiliations go beyond government-approved Islam. In a 2004 report, Human Rights Watch documented the arrest and torture of many independent Muslims in Uzbekistan.

Returning Temirbaev would violate the absolute prohibition on the return of persons to places where they risk torture, as stated in the Convention Against Torture, which Kazakhstan ratified in 1998.

This time last year, Kazakhstan earned international praise for not returning the Uzbek human rights advocate, Lutfullo Shamsuddinov, whose extradition was sought by Uzbekistan. But since then, Human Rights Watch said, Kazakhstan has been building up a record of refoulement, or forced returns of refugees. In late November, Kazakh law enforcement agents facilitated illegal return of Uzbek refugees to Uzbekistan. On March 7, in spite of UNHCR’s intervention, Kazakhstan extradited Dastan Kadyrov, a prominent Kyrgyz opposition figure, to Kyrgyzstan. UNHCR called this extradition a violation of the principle of non-refoulement. In May, Amnesty International reported the forced return of two Uighurs from Kazakhstan to China, where they are at risk of torture and the death penalty.

More than 80 Uzbek refugees who, like Temirbaev, fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan, remain in Almaty.

“We urge President Nazarbaev to ensure compliance with Kazakhstan’s international legal obligations and to protect the people who sought refuge in Kazakhstan,” said Cartner. “It is particularly important for Kazakhstan to uphold legal standards in view of its aspirations to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.”

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