PRAGUE, 17 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says it was appalled to discover that the Uzbek asylum seekers had been forcibly deported back to Uzbekistan by Ukrainian authorities.
Astrid van Genderen Stort, a UNHCR spokeswoman, spoke to RFE/RL from Geneva. "We are very shocked by the fact, by a discovery basically, yesterday, that 11 asylum seekers from Uzbekistan have been forcibly deported back. We heard that they were deported on [the night of 14 February]. Nine of these asylum seekers had earlier been registered with the Ukrainian authorities. We are very shocked that they have returned the people as it is a violation of [Ukraine's] international obligations."
Details of the case are still emerging. Reports indicate that as many as 11 men were detained in Crimea last week by Ukrainian security services on an extradition request from Uzbekistan's Prosecutor's Office for their alleged involvement in the Andijon uprising that led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians on 13 May 2005.
The Uzbeks were reportedly deported during the night of 14-15 February. Neither the exact number of the deported people nor their whereabouts are known.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today that a group of 10 men was deported to Uzbekistan. The eleventh man reportedly was allowed to stay in Ukraine because he had relatives there.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry refused to give details to RFE/RL on 16 February.
The UNHCR and HRW say Ukrainian authorities violated domestic and international legislation as nine of the Uzbeks had received the status of asylum seeker from the UN. The other two had verbally expressed their intention to apply for the same status to a UNHCR partner in Ukraine.
The UN refugee agency and HRW say those deported are likely to be held in detention by Uzbek officials and the groups expressed concern over their fate.
HRW says Ukrainian authorities sent the Uzbek asylum seekers back to "almost certain torture and abuse." Aleksandr Petrov of HRW spoke to RFE/RL from Moscow.
"The prehistory of the Andijon events and the persecution of people who had even a slight connection to those events or people who informed the world about those events tells us that the Uzbek regime continues to fight for the deportation of people who feared for their own safety and fled Uzbekistan in the aftermath [of Andijon]," he says. "But the problem is not only their deportation. The problem is that they are likely to face torture."
HRW fears that Uzbeks deported from Ukraine may be followed by refugees who fled the Andijon bloodshed and sought refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
The Kyrgyz Case
On 16 February, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court denied asylum to Uzbek refugees Jahongir Maqsudov and Odiljon Rakhimov. Judge Almagul Alpiyeva announced the first ruling.
"The 13 December 2005 ruling of the collegium of judges for administrative and economic affairs of Bishkek's city court on the appeal by [Jahongir] Maqsudov [who requested] that the 26 July 2005 decision of the migration department of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry be revoked is to remain in effect," she said. "Secondly, the [Supreme Court] ruling takes effect immediately, it is final and is not subject to appeal."
The same ruling for the second asylum seeker, Rakhimov, came thereafter.
They are part of a group of four refugees seeking asylum for fear of persecution by Uzbek authorities, who demand their extradition claiming the four men were imprisoned before the Andijon uprising.
The other two are awaiting trial. Kyrgyz authorities haven't said when those hearings will be held. The rulings on Maqsudov and Rakhimov came despite their having a refugee status from the UNHCR.
Human rights organizations have repeatedly called on Kyrgyz authorities to not extradite refugees.
Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said today: "We firmly believe that they will face certain torture and ill treatment if they are returned to Uzbekistan."
Kyrgyz court's decision is final, but Kyrgyzstan's top prosecutor, Kambaraly Kongantiyev, could send them to a third country based on the fact that the UNHCR had previously granted them refugee status.
The UNHCR has repeatedly called on the Kyrgyz government to refrain from any actions aimed at forcibly returning the four refugees to Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz NGOs are also putting pressure on Kyrgyz authorities.
And In Russia...
Meanwhile, in the Russian town of Ivanovo, hearings on the fate of 13 Uzbeks are being held. They were detained last June and applied for refugee status. The Russian Federal Migration Service rejected their applications after receiving an extradition request from Uzbekistan. At present, an Ivanovo court is considering their appeal.
They are not the first group of Uzbeks detained in Russia in recent months.
In August 2005, in the Tumen region, Russian security services detained Bayramali Yusupov, who fled from Uzbekistan after being accused of Islamic extremism in 1999. Russian authorities refused to give him asylum.
Yelena Ryabinina of the Moscow-based Civic Aid human rights organization says she fears that Yusupov as well as the Uzbeks in Ivanovo, if returned home, may be subject to detention and even torture.
She tells RFE/RL that the recent rapprochement between Russia and Uzbekistan has led to increased cooperation between the two countries' security services.
"It's neither humaneness nor compliance with international norms that seem to define the fate of people," she says. "I am afraid in these kind of matters, it's politics and relations between states that defines everything. Friendship between presidents is all that matters. For example, at present [Russian and Uzbek Presidents Vladimir] Putin and [Islam] Karimov are friends. And what is the result of their friendship for the citizens of their countries? Just a load of problems."
Hundreds of people fled Uzbekistan in the aftermath of a military crackdown in Andijon. Most of them sought refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Four of them were returned to Uzbekistan on 9 June. Their fate remains unknown.
After international pressure, Kyrgyz authorities then agreed to comply with international obligations and not extradite the other refugees. Kyrgyzstan then allowed some 439 Uzbeks to be flown to Romania in late July.
Dozens of those Andijon refugees have received political asylum in Germany, Scandinavian countries, and the Czech Republic. Others are still in Romania awaiting their fate.