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UN Urges Kyrgyz Not To Return Uzbek Refugees

Uzbek refugees in Osh before the UN-backed transfer to Romania United Nations, 30 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations' top human rights official has appealed to Kyrgyzstan not to hand over to Tashkent refugees who fled after Uzbek troops crushed an uprising in the east of the country in mid-May, suggesting they could face torture if they are repatriated.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour also repeated calls for an independent international investigation into the killings in Andijon. (To see a gallery of events in Andijon, click here. Flash required.)

Most of the 455 Uzbek refugees have now been temporarily relocated to Romania, but 15 remain in detention in Kyrgyzstan at Tashkent's request.

Arbour told a news conference yesterday that Kyrgyzstan should not take it for granted that they would not be tortured if returned to Uzbekistan.

“I’ve made it very clear [to the Kyrgyz authorities] and referred to documentation to support that...there is an absolute obligation regardless of who the targeted person is, not to return anyone to a situation in which he or she faces a real possibility of torture," Arbour said. "That is an absolute prohibition, it doesn’t matter who that person is.”

Arbour said the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture have documented repeated abuses in Uzbekistan over the years.

“There’ve been numerous, repeated allegations against Uzbekistan suggesting that torture is used in a prominent manner, that there’s a history of numerous allegations of torture," Arbour said. "I’ve also reminded the government of Kyrgyzstan that the Committee Against Torture has recently held that seeking assurances that torture will not be used is not appropriate, when the source of the assurances [Uzbekistan] doesn’t appear to be a credible source.”

Uzbek officials put the Andijon death toll at 187, saying most of those killed were extremists.

But rights advocates say the death toll is much higher, and fear civilians were killed.

Arbour said this huge difference shows the need for an independent international inquiry to establish what actually happened.

“There are vast discrepancies between what the government of Uzbekistan says happened, and what others say happened. That in itself, it seems to me, again supports the call for an independent, credible, transparent investigation, although as time passes, obviously physical evidence, forensic evidence, ballistic and so on that would’ve been available, becomes more and more difficult to obtain," Arbour said. "So, it continues, in my view, considerable urgency in addressing and trying to get to the bottom of what happened on that particular occasion.”

The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, has already published a report on Andijon.

But Arbour said this cannot be a substitute for a full-fledged independent investigation because the agency only had access to the asylum-seekers in Kyrgyzstan and was denied entry and inquiry into Uzbekistan.

At the same news conference, Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said that the UNHCR will continue to work for the fast relocation of the remaining 15 Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan.

“UNHCR remains deeply concerned about the fate of 15 other Uzbeks who are still detained in Kyrgyzstan and the agency is negotiating their release," Dujarric said. "The [UN] secretary-general in a statement issued yesterday [28 July] afternoon called on the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to facilitate the evacuation of Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers in that country.”

Dujarric said it was unclear why one of the refugees decided at the last moment not to fly to Romania and instead wished to return to Uzbekistan.

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