Kyrgyzstan should reject the Uzbekistan government’s proposal that the Kyrgyz return four refugees in exchange for Uzbek government assurances not to torture the men, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Uzbek government has offered diplomatic assurances and vague promises of access by international organizations to the four if they are returned, Human Rights Watch has learned. The Kyrgyz Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the men’s extradition case this week.

“The Uzbek government’s promises not to torture these men are not worth the paper they’re written on,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Diplomatic assurances of this type from Uzbekistan do not provide a reliable safeguard against torture and ill-treatment.”

If returned to Uzbekistan, Yakub Tashbaev, Rasul Pirmatov, Jahongir Maksudov and Odiljan Rahimov will face the risk of torture and possible death in custody. They were part of a group of more than 400 refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan immediately following the government massacre of hundreds of civilians in Andijan, Uzbekistan on May 13, 2005. The four men were detained by Kyrgyz authorities in June following an extradition request filed by Uzbekistan; the others were evacuated to safety outside Kyrgyzstan. The four have been officially recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Uzbek government has accused three of involvement in acts of violence during the Andijan events, and charges that the fourth man has not served his full prison term on an outstanding narcotics-related conviction.

Torture in Uzbekistan is an endemic and long-standing problem. Despite extensive documentation of torture by rights defenders and international organizations, the government has failed to stop it or to hold accountable those who commit torture. Following a mission to Uzbekistan, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture announced in 2003 that torture in Uzbekistan was “systematic.” The methods of torture documented in his report continue to be used by Uzbek law enforcement agents today. These include the use of electric shock, beatings with truncheons, rape and other sexual abuse, asphyxiation, and psychological abuse including threats to harm a detainee’s relatives. People detained on charges related to religion or national security are routinely subjected to particularly harsh treatment in custody.

“Torture of detainees is routine in Uzbekistan. The government of Kyrgyzstan should not pretend that these four would be treated any differently,” said Cartner. “The latest promises of access to detainees are also not credible.”

The Uzbek government did not spell out which organizations would have access to the four men and under what circumstances. In the past, the Uzbek government has failed to keep similar promises. Kyrgyzstan forcibly returned four asylum seekers to Uzbekistan in June 2005 with the understanding that their treatment in custody would be monitored. But no international organization, not even the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been given access to them and their condition remains unknown.

Sending the four refugees back to Uzbekistan would violate Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under international law, regardless of promises of access to them, Human Rights Watch said. Forcible return of the four men would constitute a breach of the nonrefoulement obligation of the Convention against Torture. And the 1951 refugee convention prohibits the forced return, or refoulement, of refugees to the country they fled. In a January 9 press release UNHCR called on the Kyrgyz government to refrain from any action aimed at forcibly returning the four refugees to Uzbekistan.

Human Rights Watch also cautioned that the government of Kyrgyzstan should not rely on diplomatic assurances as a way to circumvent its obligation not to return people to a place where they will be at risk of torture. Human Rights Watch has found that suspects returned to countries with records of torturing detainees—including Egypt and Syria—based on diplomatic assurances have, in fact, been tortured and ill-treated.

In reports published in 2004 and 2005, Human Rights Watch concluded that diplomatic assurances were ineffective in preventing torture and other ill-treatment, because these abuses are practiced in secret and their perpetrators are generally expert at keeping them from being detected. People who have suffered torture and other ill-treatment are often reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation. Even if people do reveal their abuse, diplomatic assurances are not legally binding and provide no accountability mechanism if they are breached. Moreover, the sending government has no incentive to find that torture and other ill-treatment has occurred following the return of an individual, since doing so would amount to an admission that it had violated its own nonrefoulement obligation.