I am writing to urge that the government of Kazakhstan refrain from extraditing to Uzbekistan Rafik Rakhmonov, an Uzbek asylum seeker. Extraditing Rakhmonov to Uzbekistan would violate Kazakhstan’s international obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture.

Rafik Rakhmonov fled Uzbekistan in the aftermath of the May 13, 2005 uprising and massacre in Andijan. Since 2005 Rakhmonov has been legally residing in Kazakhstan and was registered with the Kazakh migration authorities. Since then he has been living in Almaty and working as a cook at a cafeteria at the Almaty market.

On April 9, 2008, after learning from his relatives he was wanted by the Uzbek authorities for alleged involvement in the violence in Andijan, Rakhmonov applied to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Almaty for refugee status. UNHCR registered him as an asylum seeker on April 10. While awaiting a refugee status determination, asylum seekers are protected by the same bar on forced return under international refugee law as recognized refugees.

On April 17 Kazakh police detained Rakhmonov pursuant to an extradition request issued for him by the Uzbek authorities. The Uzbek authorities charged Rakhmonov under eight articles of the Uzbek Criminal Code, including terrorism and participation in an illegal religious organization. After Rakhmonov’s detention, UNHCR requested, but has not received, access to him to conduct a refugee status determination interview.

If returned to Uzbekistan, Rakhmonov faces serious risk of torture. The widespread torture of detainees in Uzbekistan has been well-documented. The UN special rapporteur on torture concluded in 2003 that torture in Uzbekistan was “systematic.” There is no evidence to suggest that the situation has improved since. The UN Committee Against Torture concluded in November 2007, after its periodic review of Uzbekistan’s compliance with the Convention against Torture, that torture and ill-treatment remain “widespread” in Uzbekistan and continue to occur with “impunity.” Earlier, in a February 2006 report, the UN high commissioner for human rights stated that “there is an urgent need for a stay of deportation to Uzbekistan of the Uzbek asylum-seekers and eyewitnesses of the Andijan events who would face the risk of torture if returned.”

In April 2008 the European Court of Human Rights ruled on a case challenging Russia’s intention to extradite to Uzbekistan 12 Uzbek refugees, also wanted by the Uzbek authorities in relation to alleged involvement in the Andijan violence. While Kazakhstan is not a member of the Council of Europe or a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, the ruling of this authoritative body is relevant to your consideration of the Rakhmonov case.

On April 24, the European Court ruled in Ismoilov and Others v. Russia that the extradition of the 12 refugees to Uzbekistan “would give rise to a violation of Article 3 [prohibition of torture] as they would face a serious risk of being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment there.” The Court said it was “not convinced by the Government's argument that they had an obligation under international law to cooperate in fighting terrorism and had a duty to extradite the applicants who were accused of terrorist activities, irrespective of a threat of ill-treatment in the receiving country” and reminded that “even in these circumstances, the Convention prohibits in absolute terms torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, irrespective of the victim's conduct.” The Court also said it was “not persuaded that the assurances from the Uzbek authorities offered a reliable guarantee against the risk of ill-treatment.”

Rakhmonov is at particular risk of torture and ill-treatment in custody because the Uzbek government requests his extradition in relation to his alleged involvement in the Andijan violence. Since the Andijan events, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances in which individuals questioned or charged in relation to the events were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Individuals returned to Uzbekistan, including the nine who were forcibly returned from Kazakhstan in November 2005, had been ill-treated and held incommunicado. Human Right Watch is deeply concerned that if extradited, Rakhmonov would be tortured—as had been dozens of other Andijan suspects—to coerce “confession” that would be used to sentence him to a long prison term after unfair trial.

In our November 2007 report, Nowhere to Turn, Human Rights Watch documented widespread torture and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan that goes largely unpunished. Human Rights Watch found that common methods of torture and ill-treatment include beatings with truncheons and bottles filled with water, electric shock, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, sexual humiliation, and threats of physical harm to relatives.
An illustration of this is the treatment of five defendants who were tried in March 2006 on religious “extremism” charges. All five testified in court that they were tortured. One of the defendants said in court that during the police investigation he was threatened with rape with a baton, and was beaten and ill-treated in order to force him to incriminate himself. The man also testified that police beat another defendant in front of him, as a form of intimidation.

This is the fate that could await Rakhmonov if he is extradited to Uzbekistan.

Rakhmonov’s extradition would violate the 1951 Refugee Convention, which bans the return of refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they face persecution (refoulement). Kazakhstan ratified the convention in 1999.

Rakhmonov’s extradition would also violate the Convention against Torture, which Kazakhstan ratified in 1998. This convention absolutely prohibits the return of persons to places where they risk torture. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kazakhstan ratified in 2006, unconditionally prohibits torture. The UN Human Rights Committee, the body that interprets and oversees the implementation of the ICCPR, repeatedly stated in its General Comments and its jurisprudence that the extradition of a person to a country where he risks torture is prohibited.

These international obligations prevail over Kazakhstan’s obligations under bilateral and regional agreements relating to extradition. The UN Human Rights Committee has unambiguously addressed this issue, stating, “[I]f a State party extradites a person within its jurisdiction […], and if, as a result, there is a real risk that his or her rights under the Covenant will be violated in another jurisdiction, the State party itself may be in violation of the Covenant.”

In view of Kazakhstan’s upcoming chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, it is especially incumbent on the Kazakh authorities to set a positive example to other countries in the region.

Human Rights Watch expresses its sincere hope that the government of Kazakhstan will guarantee Rakhmonov his fundamental right to protection from torture and to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Thank you for your attention to this letter.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division