The European Union must stress the protection of Uzbek refugees when it meets with the foreign ministers of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan tomorrow, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Cooperation Council meetings, the single most important annual bilateral meetings between the European Union and both countries, will take place on July 18 as Uzbek refugees in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan face increasing harassment and threats of forced returns.

“The EU should use this crucial opportunity to send a strong message telling the Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments to prevent the forced return of refugees to Uzbekistan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Hundreds of Uzbeks fleeing religious and political persecution are now seeking refuge in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

The vast majority of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan fled in the aftermath of the May 13, 2005 massacre in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan. Several incidents in Kyrgyzstan point to efforts by Uzbek security forces to coerce some of them to return. Last week a refugee from Andijan was beaten in southern Kyrgyzstan by three men whom he believed to be Uzbek security agents, who threatened that he would be abducted and forcibly returned to Uzbekistan if he did not withdraw his application for asylum with the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and return “voluntarily.” Another refugee said last week that Uzbek security agents had threatened a group of Uzbek refugees in the Kyrgyz city of Osh that they should voluntarily return or be forced back.

Isroil Kholdarov, a human rights and political activist from Andijan who has been seeking asylum in Kyrgyzstan, has been missing since last week. Kyrgyz police stated on July 12 that they had detained an Uzbek national who is wanted in Uzbekistan in connection with the Andijan events, but did not reveal the man’s name. The same police official said that they had detained four other Uzbek nationals, and that all five were suspects in a shooting in southern Kyrgyzstan.

“We are deeply concerned about Kholdarov,” said Cartner. “We urge the EU to make every effort to clarify his whereabouts with the Kyrgyz authorities and ensure that he is protected from being forcibly returned to Uzbekistan.”

A skirmish in southern Kyrgyzstan this weekend between Kyrgyz police and people whom they identified as “extremists wanted in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan” led the authorities in Jalal Abad to introduce identity checks. This, in turn, has prompted fears of a round-up of refugees and asylum seekers.

Last July the European Union helped UNCHR secure the evacuation to Romania of more than 400 Uzbek refugees who had fled to Kyrgyzstan following the massacre in Andijan. Human Rights Watch noted that those refugees had been staying in a refugee camp, whereas now, with refugees in Kyrgyzstan scattered, they are even more vulnerable to harassment, abduction and forced return.

Human Rights Watch also urged the European Union to press the Kyrgyz government to allow for the resettlement of four Uzbek refugees who have been in a Kyrgyz jail since June 9, 2005. The four men were meant to be among the 400-plus evacuated to Romania, however the four remained behind in Kyrgyz custody following an extradition request by Uzbekistan. The Uzbek government has accused them of involvement in acts of violence during the Andijan events. UNHCR had 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, a decision which the Kyrgyz Supreme Court has upheld.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan, about 80 Uzbek refugees who fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan also face harassment, surveillance and threat of forced return. They are independent Muslims, or religious Muslims whose practices, beliefs and affiliations go beyond government-approved Islam. Most are associated with Imam Obidkhon Nazarov, a well-known independent Muslim leader who currently has asylum in Europe and is wanted by Uzbek authorities for supposed leadership of a “Wahhabi group.” In a 2004 report, Human Rights Watch documented the arrest and torture of many independent Muslims in Uzbekistan.

In late November, Kazakh law enforcement agents facilitated illegal return to Uzbekistan of nine of these refugees, two of whom were registered as asylum seekers with UNHCR. They have since been tried and sentenced, or are awaiting trial, on various charges related to “religious extremism.”

On June 24, one of the refugees, Gabdurafih Temirbaev, was detained on false pretenses and has remained in the custody of the Committee for National Security of Kazakhstan. UNHCR was granted access to him last week. No information is available concerning whether Uzbekistan has requested Temirbaev’s extradition.

Seven other Uzbek refugees, also wanted on religious extremism charges for their alleged affiliation with “Akramia” and in connection to the Andijan uprising, are also believed to have been forcibly returned from Kazakhstan in late November and early December.

Both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which bans the forced return of refugees and in particular the return of any asylum seeker to a place where they face torture or persecution. Both countries have also ratified the Convention against Torture, which bans the transfer of people to countries where they face a risk of torture.

“Uzbek refugees in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan face a very real risk of persecution and torture in Uzbekistan,” said Cartner. “We hope the EU will urge Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to make sure that they’re protected from this risk.”