Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov said today that the 29 refugees due to be returned to Uzbekistan were criminals who escaped from prison during last month's protests in Andijon.
"As soon as we finalize the additional checking [they will be sent back]. There is no need to keep these people here because Akramists [members of the banned Islamist group Akramiya] could attack the Osh temporary detention center as they did in Andijon because these are armed criminals," Beknazarov said.
But the move will nonetheless be seen as an affront to UN officials who have called for Kyrgyzstan to halt forced returns of Uzbek refugees.
Yesterday, the UN issued a series of strong warnings against the returns -- first from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and then jointly from the UN's top human rights and refugee officials.
Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told RFE/RL that such returns would constitute a violation of international refugee law and sour the UN's relations with Bishkek.
“I think it will be a great tragedy if Kyrgyzstan -- if what Prosecutor-General [Beknazarov] apparently said today -- goes ahead, because really overnight the reputation of Kyrgyzstan as an upholder of international law, which is a very good reputation, it would be very sad to see that thrown away," Colville said. "And that’s what we see right now.”
Some 500 Uzbeks sought refuge in Kyrgyzstan after Uzbek forces clashed with protesters in the city of Andijon in May.
Human rights groups say up to 1,000 people died in the violence, including many women and children. The Uzbek government puts the number at 176 and has refused all international inquiries into events.
Kofi Annan has expressed concern about the fate of Uzbek asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan, and has called on Kyrgyz authorities to abide by its international obligations. These include the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which forbids forced deportations.
The UN chief said he has received assurances no decision would be made on returning Uzbek asylum seekers until Bishkek had formally reviewed the matter. Colville of UNHCR says the Uzbek cases require careful examination before any deportation decisions are made.
“Clearly, it’s very dangerous to act hastily on this. That’s why we are making such a fuss, and we’ll continue to make a fuss. If people are sent back, it will be a very clear violation of international law,” Colville said.
The Uzbek government has asked Kyrgyzstan to return some 133 Uzbeks currently seeking refugee status. Officials in Tashkent claim that all 133, including the 29 now due to return, are common criminals, and not refugees.
Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has also urged a halt to any forced returns. She says there are reasons to believe asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan risk torture and extrajudicial, summary executions if they are deported.
She and Antonio Guterres, the UN's top refugee official, have repeatedly expressed concern over the fate of four Uzbek asylum seekers who were deported on 9 June before their refugee claims had been examined.
Stuart Khan is the Kyrgyzstan program director for Freedom House, a U.S.-based group that monitors democratic development. He told RFE/RL the fate of the four deportees remains unknown.
"Previously, a group of 16 [Uzbek] people had been taken out of the [Kyrgyz] camp and held in detention in response to a request for extradition by Uzbekistan," Khan said. "And four of those people were actually turned over to the Uzbek authorities, and we've had no word on happened to them. Recently, another group [of refugees] was just taken out of the camp and placed into detention, and their fate is still really unknown. The concern is that they would be returned to Uzbekistan, where they face the possibility of reprisals for fleeing the country."
Kahn urged Kyrgyz officials to explore every option, both domestically and internationally, before making a decision to return refugees.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)
Uzbekistan: Tashkent Reveals Findings On Andijon Uprising As Victims Mourned
For more on the mid-May violence in Uzbekistan, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan