Russian prosecutors announced on August 3 that 12 Uzbeks and a Kyrgyz national should be extradited to Uzbekistan to face charges of involvement in events that officials there claim amounted to terrorism.
"These people have no connection to the Andijon events whatsoever. I believe it is nothing but slander by the Uzbek government." -- activist
The decision comes despite the fact that all 13 have been granted UN refugee status since their detention in Russia more than a year ago.
The men have been in detention in Ivanovo, northeast of the Russian capital, since June 2005. Fear Of Return
Defense lawyer Svetlana Martynova told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the news came as a serious blow to her clients. She characterized fellow defense lawyer Irina Sokolova's assessment: "They don't feel well. Irina says they have all lost weight, [and] their health has deteriorated badly. And, of course, they all fear a return to their country. As [Irina] said, they all were crying in the courtroom."
In a statement posted on the website of the Prosecutor-General's Office on August 3, authorities said the Uzbek extradition request is not politically motivated but based solely on criminal charges. The statement also said Russia has received written assurances from Uzbek officials that the 13 will neither be tortured nor sentenced to death. But it is also unlikely that Russian authorities would aggressively monitor their treatment, particularly as Moscow grows increasingly cozy with Uzbekistan's strong-arm administration.
International rights advocates and a number of Western governments suspect Uzbek authorities of routinely torturing detainees. Independent rights groups have expressed fear that just such a fate could await these refugees if they are forcibly returned.Involvement Questioned
Uzbek authorities accuse the 13 men of involvement in the Andijon unrest, which it has characterized as a terrorist uprising. The defense says that all but one were out of the country at the time, and he was only in Andijon to obtain a new passport.
Lawyer Martynova adds that her Uzbek clients simply are not the revolutionary type. She says nearly all are university educated and all have lived and worked in Russia for years.
Hundreds have been jailed in Uzbekistan following the Andijon events (RFE/RL, file photo)
After their arrest, the detainees applied for refugee status in Russia. The Russian Federal Migration Service rejected their applications based on the extradition request from Uzbekistan. But UN representatives visited them in custody and granted them refugee status.
The UN's half-century-old convention on refugees clearly states that no refugee may be expelled lawfully except "on grounds of national security or public order." Russian authorities have not accused these detainees of any wrongdoing.
The Moscow-based Memorial human rights center says the charges brought against them are fabricated. "I talked to their friends, relatives, and colleagues," Memorial's Bahrom Hamraev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "I have examined the issue from all viewpoints. These people have no connection to the Andijon events whatsoever. I believe it is nothing but slander by the Uzbek government." Targeting Activists?
Defense lawyer Martynova also claims the case is politically motivated. She said it is rooted in the defendants' public activism during the run-up to Andijon, when protests mounted over a trial of suspected Islamic radicals:
"The three of them published an Internet article in March . They appealed to the public to attract attention to the situation in Uzbekistan -- to arbitrariness, torture, [and] executions without trials amid poverty and devastation," Martynova said. "However, they also wrote that they did not want a violent change of the constitutional regime but simply wanted to highlight what was going on. But they did not call for violence, although they expressed their position. It was in March, right before the Andijon events. I believe that was the reason."
Yelena Ryabinina, who heads the Central Asian political immigrants program for the Moscow-based rights group Civic Assistance (Grazhdanskoye Sodeistviye), says officials in Tashkent accuse the men of having financed the unrest from Russia. But if that were the case, she says they should face trial where they are suspected of having committed the crime -- in Russia. Tashkent Cozy With Moscow
Critics of Moscow's cooperation in these cases note that Russian officials went so far as to strip their own citizen, Hatam Hajimatovan, an ethnic Uzbek detained along with the others, of his citizenship. He has since fled through Ukraine and resettled in Norway, with UN political asylum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (with) with Uzbek President Islam Karimov (ITAR-TASS, file photo)
Ryabinina said the Uzbeks in Ivanovo are victims of the recent rapprochement between Moscow and Tashkent. "Of course, undoubtedly, it has been a result of the rapprochement since the very beginning," she said. "After the Andijon tragedy, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was virtually the only one who not only did not condemn [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov for mass shootings of his own citizens, but practically supported him and recognized his correctness."
A Russian Supreme Court decision on July 21 might provide a ray of hope for these detainees. The court ruled that the extradition case of an Uzbek man, Bayramali Yusupov, accused by Uzbek authorities of Islamic extremism in 1999 should get another hearing from a lower court.
Ryabinina said the defense in this case will appeal the prosecutors' extradition order within 10 days. "Lawyer Irina Sokolova has the appeal ready," she said. "As soon as [the text of] the official decision is received -- and [the Uzbeks] get not only faxed copies but also [originals of] official documents -- they will appeal. If the first court -- the Ivanovo regional court -- does not comply with the appeal, they will appeal to the Supreme Court."
The Uzbek refugees have also sought help from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which they petitioned in January. That case will proceed more emphatically, according to their lawyers, following this latest setback at the hands of Russian prosecutors.