Uzbek refugees: political pawns

From the Aug. 1 AP. Rights groups are protesting that 15 Uzbek refugees are to be forcibly repatriated from Kyrgyzstan. But this is after 440 were flown to Romania to seek asylum in Europe last week over the objections of Uzbekistan’s government. This happened immediately before Uzbekistan announced it was giving the US military the boot—and may have helped precipitate it…

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – A prosecutor said Monday that Kyrgyzstan will send 15 Uzbeks asylum seekers back to their home country, despite pleas from the United Nations and rights groups that it violates international treaties on refugees.

The announcement of the intended repatriations came after weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy about the fate of hundreds of Uzbeks who fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan in May after Uzbek security forces violently suppressed an uprising in an eastern city.

The U.N. refugee agency sent 440 Uzbeks to Romania last week over Uzbekistan’s objections, but Kyrgyzstan held back 15 refugees it had arrested in the city of Osh.

“We will insist and suggest that the remaining 15 men be handed over to Uzbekistan,” deputy chief prosecutor Nurlan Jeenaliyev said Monday. His office had said it had “reliable evidence that the 15 have been involved in committing serious crimes.”

Uzbekistan has demanded the deportation of the refugees to face charges including murder and terrorism.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees wants all 15 flown to a third country.

The U.S. Embassy urged the Kyrgyz government Monday to take “immediate steps to protect the rights of the (Uzbek) refugees remaining” in the country.

“We, together with the UNHCR, are still resolutely in favor of transferring the remaining 15 Uzbek asylum seekers to a third country for further resettlement procedures,” the embassy said.

Despite international calls to respect the refugees’ rights, Kyrgyzstan in recent weeks has secretly sent at least 89 Uzbek refugees back home, although U.N. officials said they feared those repatriated could face prosecution.

The Prosecutor General’s office said that extradition would not violate international law if the detainees are proven to have committed crimes of a “nonpolitical nature.”

Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry criticized the evacuation of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan as violating “all procedures and norms of international law.”

It also accused unidentified “outside forces” of “unacceptable and outrageous interference” in Uzbek affairs and of applying “unprecedented pressure” on Kyrgyz authorities not to send back the refugees that Uzbekistan wants extradited.

On Friday, Uzbekistan notified the United States that it was ending its agreement allowing U.S. military aircraft and personnel to use an air base that has been an important hub for American military operations in Afghanistan.

Neither the State Department nor the Defense Department offered a reason why Uzbekistan was evicting the U.S. forces from Karshi-Khanabad air base, commonly referred to as K2. The New York Times reported that a State Department official cited the Uzbek action as a response to the United Nations operation with the refugees.

A U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Col. James Yonts, said Monday the Uzbek move would not hinder the battle against militants in the region.

The Uzbek government had also in recent months tightened restrictions on use of the base, including banning night flights. Those restrictions were widely seen as a reaction to U.S. calls for an international inquiry into the May 13 violence in the eastern city of Andijan.

Uzbek officials say 187 people died in the Andijan violence and said Islamic militants were responsible. Rights activists, however, say as many as 750 people were killed, mostly unarmed civilians demonstrating against poverty and political and religious oppression in the authoritarian state.

See our last post on the Great Game.