Prague, 2 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of the 15 refugees is a major challenge to the government of newly elected Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
On one hand, Bakiev will need all the help the UN can offer as he officially starts his five-year term in office later this month. And the UN, fearing those Uzbeks will be tortured in their homeland, wants the 15 refugees to be sent to a third country.
But Kyrgyzstan also needs Uzbek goodwill and natural gas. Tashkent has cut those supplies on numerous occasions before to emphasize disagreements with Bishkek on an array of issues.
So the question in Bishkek is, what to do?
Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov has said he considers the 15 refugees criminals. His deputy, Nurlan Jeyenaliev, reiterated that position yesteray but said a decision is still pending.
"There is no conclusion yet," Jeyenaliev said. "We cannot say whether we will deport them [to Uzbekistan] or not, either tomorrow or today. All these things will be investigated and then we will have a conclusion. The stance of the Prosecutor-General's Office is that these 15 people should be deported to Uzbekistan."
"We cannot say whether we will deport them [to Uzbekistan] or not, either tomorrow or today. All these things will be investigated and then we will have a conclusion. The stance of the Prosecutor-General's Office is that these 15 people should be deported to Uzbekistan."
However, the prosecutor-general is unlikely to make the final decision on such a politically sensitive matter. And authorities in Bishkek are likely weighing their options carefully.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ chief representative in Kyrgyzstan, Carlos Zaccagini, said yesterday that his office has designated 11 of the 15 refugees. Zaccagnini appealed to Kyrgyz authorities to give the other four the same status.
UN refugee chief Louise Arbour said recently that Uzbekistan's record on torture is reason enough for Kyrgyzstan to refuse any extradition requests from Tashkent.
“I’ve made it very clear [to the Kyrgyz authorities] and referred to documentation to support that, 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.”
But for Kyrgyzstan, it does matter who its neighbor is. After all, Uzbek security forces cross the Kyrgyz border whenever they wish, sometimes apprehending suspects and whisking them back home.
In late July, the Uzbek foreign minister condemned
the UN’s airlift of 439 Uzbek refugees to Romania, alleging it violated “all procedures and norms of international law.”
Uzbekistan’s public displeasure over the UN move was perhaps also meant as message to the new Kyrgyz government that relations with Tashkent could hinge on what happens to the 15 refugees.
However, the new Kyrgyz government might wish to show Uzbekistan that it will not put up with such bullying tactics -- and that it will no longer be the weak neighbor it was under ousted President Askar Akaev.
Beyond foreign relations, the Uzbek refugee issue is dividing Kyrgyz society. While the prosecutor-general sees the 15 as criminals, Kyrgyz human rights activists -- many of whom supported Akaev’s ouster -- also supported the idea that none of the Uzbek refugees should be returned.
Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, explained the perspective of human rights advocates.
"We have documented pressure by local [Uzbek] government officials on families to go to the camps in [Kyrgyzstan] in order to persuade their family members to come back," Denber said. "And I think that there is reason to fear that once these people got back to Uzbekistan, they would face persecution, detention, and possibly torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment in custody if they were detained."
The Kyrgyz government’s dilemma intensified yesterday as prominent Kyrgyz activist Tursunbek Akun called for the 11 people declared refugees by the UNHCR to be released immediately. He said the other four should be presumed innocent until found guilty by a court of law.