Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s acting foreign minister, told journalists late today that Bishkek is unlikely to extradite the remaining 15 to Uzbekistan.
The departure of the 440 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan puts an end to 10 weeks of pressure, negotiations, and diplomatic notes between Bishkek, Tashkent, and international organizations.
Muratbek Imanaliyev, the former Kyrgyz foreign minister, tells RFE/RL that Kyrgyz authorities have dealt well with opposing pressure from Uzbekistan and the United Nations.
“I believe the decision to take the refugees to a third country was the most optimal option, because, as we know, the Kyrgyz leadership has been caught between two fires on this issue. On the one hand, the international community demanded that Kyrgyzstan should follow the international convention it signed [on the protection of refugees]. On the other hand, there was Uzbekistan’s leadership, which also had support from some other states, [asking for them to be returned],” Imanaliyev said.
Uzbekistan had put strong pressure on Bishkek, saying some of the refugees were guilty of serious crimes, including terrorism and extremism during the violent clashes in Andijon in May. Human rights groups say the clashes between government troops and demonstrators may have left as many as 750 people dead, including many women and children.
Uzbek officials put the death toll from the violence at 187, saying most of those killed were government troops and extremists.
Alex Vatanka, the Eurasia editor at the London-based “Jane’s Country Risk” security publication, says Bishkek has turned the Uzbek refugee crisis into a public relations opportunity.
He says the fact that Kyrgyz authorities decided to demonstrate their cooperation with international bodies like the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, sends a positive signal to the world community.
“What the Kyrgyz decided to do -- which was only to return a simple handful of the refugees immediately after they arrived and then allow the remaining to stay in Kyrgyzstan and allow, in the time that passed since, for things to cool down slightly -- it’s made it a much better thought-through process than simply a kind of panic response to the immediate Uzbek demand when Andijon happened in May," Vatanka says.
Four refugees were returned to Uzbekistan at Tashkent’s request in June. Human rights bodies, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have repeatedly warned that refugees may face torture and imprisonment if returned to their home country.
Another 29 refugees were taken out of the camp earlier this month and held in a detention center in the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh. The fate of 14 of them was determined on 28 July, when they were allowed to fly to Romania with the others.
The UNHCR announced today that 15 refugees remain in detention.
Kyrgyz authorities have said the 15 will not be freed until officials are sure they did not commit serious crimes in Uzbekistan.
Azimbek Beknazarov, Kyrgyzstan’s acting prosecutor-general, tells RFE/RL that some of the men are criminals.
“The 15 people are not refugees, they are criminals. Twelve of them were expecting to be tried before the Andijon events. You can’t mix them together with refugees or even Akramists [members of the alleged Akramiya Islamic group that has been accused of orchestrating the Andijon violence]," Beknazarov says.
Former Foreign Minister Imanaliyev says Kyrgyzstan should not extradite the 15 remaining refugees to Uzbekistan, but should let them be taken out of the country as well. He says it will help Kyrgyzstan improve its international image even more.
Vatanka tells RFE/RL that the process is a win-win game for all parties involved.
“You know, Kyrgyzstan is trying to use this to say to the world: ‘Look, we’re not sending refugees into harm's way.’ Uzbekistan doesn’t really want them back. And the Americans are using the whole thing to say: ’We were the ones to put the pressure on Kyrgyzstan, whereas the actual fact there was no need for any pressure anyway. These people didn’t want to go back to Uzbekistan, they’d prefer, if the option was on the table, to go to Holland, Canada, or wherever it is they can go to. It’s not a security issue, if I could put it that way,” Vatanka says.
Vatanka says Uzbek authorities are also winners in the situation, as it is ultimately not in their interest to have the 15 men back in Uzbekistan.
“Why go there and create more damage to your own reputation than it has already sustained in recent weeks and months? [Uzbek authorities] can almost be sure that if they go and make a claim, saying ‘We want these refugees back,’ the world media would love to have another go at Uzbekistan, saying: ‘Here it is, [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov is trying to get these innocent people back into Uzbekistan so he can torture them.' That’s the way he will be portrayed. Hopefully, Karimov has some advisors telling him to let this one go," Vatanka says.
Vatanka predicts the remaining 15 refugees will eventually follow the rest of the group and leave Kyrgyzstan for a third country.
(RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Kyas Moldokasymov contributed to this report from Bishkek.)