July 16, 2013

CENTRAL ASIA, a vast expanse of identities, cultures and peoples that the storied Silk Road once traversed, has been called the “lost heart” of the Eurasian land mass, still adrift in the wake of the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991. In the two decades since, the mosaic of five former satellite republics has unfortunately become a region of economic under-performance and corrupt dictatorship.

Violence is a tool of these authoritarian states, one sometimes justified as part of a war on terrorism. In 2005, the government in Uzbekistan killed without warning hundreds of protestors gathered in Andijan, and a bloody interethnic conflict in the Ferghana Valley uprooted some 400,000 people as recently as 2010. Meanwhile, journalists or politicians who seek to preserve some independence are at constant risk of imprisonment and mistreatment.

These conditions have caused many to flee and seek asylum elsewhere. Most at risk are those accused of membership in banned Islamist groups, but blacklists also include journalists, human rights activists and opposition supporters. According to a striking new study from Amnesty International, the bureaucracies of these police states often collude with each other to detain refugees and force extradition, which ends with the torture of citizens who have not been convicted of any crime — all under the auspices of “national security.”

In 2001, four of these states, in cooperation with Russia and China, formed the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism, which permits the signatories to take action against those activities and to cooperate in apprehending and extraditing wanted persons. The problem is that many security officials in these former Soviet republics, who trained in the same system decades ago, show little regard for human rights or rule of law. Anyone called a terrorist thus becomes a terrorist and is made to pay the price.

This cozy duplicity serves to expose even further the hypocrisy of Vladimir Putin’s claim regarding Edward Snowden that “Russia never extradites anyone anywhere, and is not going to extradite anyone.” Unless they are Uzbek or Kazakh, that is.

Several hundred cases of unjustified extradition have been documented in the past 10 years, but the difficulty of monitoring cases across a region without a free press underscores the reality that a far larger number of people is likely tortured on a routine basis. Human rights law, such as Article 33 of the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, holds that no state should return a refugee “to the frontiers of territories where his (or her) life or freedom would be threatened.” The world should pay more attention to a region where such promises are routinely ignored.