Kyrgyz authorities should not forcibly return an Uzbek asylum seeker to Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said today.

The asylum seeker, Erkin Holikov, is an Uzbek citizen currently serving a four-year prison sentence in Kyrgyzstan on charges of illegal border crossing and failing to report a crime.

On the morning of May 12, 2008, a car with Uzbek police agents arrived in the Kyrgyz city of Osh to pick up Holikov and transfer him to Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch spoke with a source saying that the police officers had formal permission from the Kyrgyz prosecutor general to take him back to Uzbekistan. However, the head of the remand prison where Holikov is currently being held did not hand him over because his asylum case is pending.

“Kyrgyz authorities have returned too many refugees and asylum seekers to Uzbekistan already,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is time for the Prosecutor General’s Office to take a principled stand and put an end to forced returns.”

Between 2005 and 2007, the Kyrgyz government returned more than a dozen refugees and asylum seekers to Uzbekistan, and at least five Uzbek asylum seekers have disappeared from Kyrgyzstan during that period.

Three weeks after Holikov’s arrest in Kyrgyzstan in August 2007, the Uzbek authorities put him on a wanted list for alleged involvement in religious extremism and began requesting his extradition.

On April 30, 2008, Holikov’s lawyer tried to register Holikov with Kyrgyzstan’s State Commission for Migration – a prerequisite for receiving asylum in Kyrgyzstan. Although the commission accepted the documents, it refused to register Holikov. A court is scheduled to hear Holikov’s appeal against this decision on May 22.

“It’s a good thing that the prison staff would not hand over Holikov,” said Cartner. “But we’re concerned that Uzbek police agents could return another day and whisk him away. And if he’s sent back, he’ll face a serious risk of torture or other ill treatment.”

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.”

Returning Holikov 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. It would also violate Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations not to return asylum seekers as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

On March 6, 2008, the Jalal-Abad City Court found Holikov guilty of concealing a crime (article 339, part 2 of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic) and illegal border crossing (article 346, part 1 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced him to four years of imprisonment. Holikov was tried together with another citizen of Uzbekistan, Jamoldin Abdumajitov and three citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Bahram Kunakov, Hasanbai Yusupjanov and Ruqia Ibragimova. Abdumajitov was found guilty of attempted murder, infringement on life of a law-enforcement officer, calls for violent change of the constitutional order, incitement of religious conflict, and illegal possession of arms and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment, the other three received a three-year suspended sentence. The group was arrested on August 21, 2007 in Jalal-Abad.