Four Uzbek asylum seekers have disappeared from southern Kyrgyzstan in the past week, raising fears that they were forcibly returned to Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
“We’re afraid these men have been handed over to Uzbek authorities and that their lives are in danger,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyzstan is responsible for the safety of refugees and asylum seekers in its territory and it must find these men. The United Nations, the European Union and Washington should call upon the Kyrgyz government to protect refugees and asylum seekers.”
On August 23, two Uzbek asylum seekers, Ilhom Abdunabiev and Bakhtiar Ahmedov, disappeared in the city of Osh after an interview with the State Committee for Migration and Employment in which they applied for refugee status. The two men missed their post-interview check-in call with Osh-Adilettulugu, a local refugee protection organization, and did not return home. Both men are from Andijan, where Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians on May 13, 2005 , after an armed uprising.
One week earlier, on August 16 and 17 respectively, two other Uzbek asylum seekers, Valim Babajanov and Saidullo Shakirov, were taken from their temporary homes and presumably returned to Uzbekistan. At least one other Uzbek asylum seeker – Isroil Kholdorov, an opposition political activist from Andijan – disappeared on July 10.
According to the Bishkek office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), eyewitnesses saw unidentified men in plainclothes put Babajanov and Shakirov in private cars and drive them away. According to Ferghana.ru, a Russian-language Central Asia news website, the men who came for Babajanov on August 16 said they were from the police and promised to bring him back soon. He never returned. According to a source close to the case, Babajanov was in the custody of the Uzbek National Security Service as of August 21.
Human Rights Watch spoke with Babajanov, who had been staying in Osh at the home of the head of the local State Committee for Migration and Employment, on August 12. He said he felt safe in Osh, but expressed deep concerns about the safety of other asylum seekers living there. Babajanov did not indicate any plans to return to Andijan, which he and Shakirov fled in the wake of the May 2005 massacre.
Kyrgyz authorities deny any involvement in the kidnapping of Babajanov and Shakirov.
Human Rights Watch fears that if the four have been returned to Uzbekistan, they could be forced to publicly incriminate themselves and others as part of the Uzbek government’s campaign to shift blame away from government troops for the deaths of hundreds of people in the Andijan massacre and whitewash the government’s appalling human rights record.
Babajanov’s mother and two sisters were among more than 400 Uzbek refugees evacuated in July 2005 from Kyrgyzstan to Romania by the office of the UNHCR; they were resettled in Germany. Twenty of the 400 evacuees who had resettled in the United States returned to Uzbekistan in July, and another 40 are expected to do so this month.
“We’re worried that Uzbek authorities may be coercing Babajanov to tell his relatives they will be safe if they return to Uzbekistan,” said Cartner.
An ethnic Uzbek resident in Osh told Human Rights Watch that he believed his brother back in Uzbekistan had been forced to call relatives resettled in the United States to tell them that “very big people” would guarantee their safety if they returned home. Prior to that incident, the brother had been summoned by the Uzbek National Security Services.
In recent weeks, Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies have detained a number of asylum seekers as part of what the government calls counterterrorism sweeps, which are believed to be carried out in close consultation with Uzbek security forces. One detained asylum seeker told Human Rights Watch that police threatened to send him back to Uzbekistan, but released him after UNHCR intervened. Other detainees were also released.
On August 9, in blatant violation of international law, Kyrgyz authorities extradited to Uzbekistan four refugees and one asylum seeker.
The cooperation between Uzbek and Kyrgyz security forces and the returns of Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers are an indication of a closer relationship between the two countries. The presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Kurmanbek Bakiev and Islam Karimov, are expected to meet in Tashkent next month.
“Security for asylum seekers is poor in most of Kyrgyzstan and dire in the south, so the U.N. should move them straight to the capital,” said Cartner. “Then, UNHCR should expedite examination of their refugee claims. Third countries should accept Uzbek refugees for resettlement as soon as possible. If Uzbek refugees cannot be resettled quickly, they should be evacuated to Romania or other temporary locations.”