Kyrgyzstan: Uzbek refugees charge forced repatriation

Kyrgyzstan briefly surfaced in the headlines following the case of Air Force Major Jill Metzger of North Carolina, assigned to the US base at Manas, who managed to escape after being kidnapped Sept. 5. But the US media pays little heed to the growing signs of a looming social explosion in Central Asia, where the Pentagon has maintained a large presence since 9-11. Taalaibek Amanov writes for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Sept. 14:

Asylum seekers feel betrayed by Kyrgyz government
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – International groups have voiced concern that Kyrgyz authorities are quietly sending refugees and asylum-seekers back to Uzbekistan in contravention of international law.

Kyrgyzstan won plaudits last year for taking in 440 people after they fled Uzbekistan after the May violence in the city of Andijan, where journalists and human rights groups reported hundreds of civilians killed by security forces. Many of these subsequently were granted political asylum and allowed to travel on to countries in Europe.

Now it appears to be buckling to pressure from its bigger neighbor to deliver people wanted for questioning, even if they are technically entitled to the Kyrgyz government’s protection as holders of or applicants for refugee status.

The Bishkek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement last month saying that it was worried about the fate of five asylum seekers who had recently disappeared.

UNHCR said it had received credible information that at least two of them were now in custody in Uzbekistan.

“UNHCR regrets the obvious erosion of the Kyrgyz asylum system, which until recently was an exemplary one in Central Asia,” the statement concluded.

The U.S.-based watchdog Human Rights Watch named the five asylum-seekers currently missing as Ilhom Abdunabiev, Bakhtiar Ahmedov,Valim Babajanov, Saidullo Shakirov and Isroil Kholdorov.

“We’re afraid these men have been handed over to Uzbek authorities and that their lives are in danger,” said Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director Holly Cartner. “Kyrgyzstan is responsible for the safety of refugees and asylum seekers in its territory, and it must find these men.”

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek has expressed concern about the plight of the refugees and urged Kyrgyzstan officials to respect international conventions on refugee rights and torture.

Kyrgyz authorities have denied either detaining any of the asylum seekers or retuning them to Uzbekistan.

But Aziza Abdrasulova, the director of Kylym Shamy, a local human-rights organization, challenged the government’s assertions.

“At present, the (Kyrgyz) state is not fulfilling its obligations with regard to refugees, and is in fact violating these obligations through such actions (as secret detention and extradition),” he said

Khurnisa Makhardinova, a lawyer who often represents refugees, said disappearances were now a regular occurrence.

“It is becoming the system, and has reached the point where many refugees want to return home because they’re scared they may be forcibly and secretly extradited,” he said.

Tursunbek Akunov, the chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s official human rights commission, said his agency was looking into the matter, but even he concedes it is probable that asylum seekers are being both detained and deported.

“The Kyrgyz authorities place insufficient value on the U.N. convention on refugees, while our secret services carry out the bidding of their Uzbek colleagues,” he said.

Political analyst Nur Omarov is in no doubt why the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, which swept to power on a wave of pro-democracy hopes in March 2005, now appears to have abandoned its concern for human rights.

Kyrgyz must rely on Uzbekistan for its energy supplies. The leadership in Tashkent was alarmed by the March revolution, in which former President Askar Akaev was summarily removed from office, and further angered by Bishkek’s decision to allow 400-plus refugees from Andijan to immigrate to other countries, since the move implied that it was unsafe for them to go back to Uzbekistan, he noted.

“By doing this (returning refugees to Uzbekistan), Kyrgyzstan has decided to show loyalty to Uzbekistan,” Omarov said. “The aim is to restore the economic and political partnership before winter sets in. Kyrgyzstan is reliant on Uzbek gas supplies, so extraditing refugees may be a step to prevent possible hitches during the negotiations on gas supplies and debt payments.”

For now, the remaining asylum seekers can only hide and hope that they are not expelled or abducted from their refuge.

“It is frightening to go out of doors because you don’t know whether you’ll be kidnapped by the Uzbek secret services,” said one asylum seeker. “We hide in our rented apartments like trapped animals.”

We noted months ago that the Uzbek refugees are being treated as political pawns.

See also our last posts on Kyrgyzstan and the politics of Central Asia.