Kyrgyzstan Plans to Extradite Uzbek Refugees

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 23, 2005; 10:59 AM

MOSCOW, June 23 -- Kyrgyzstan's top prosecutor said Thursday that authorities intend to extradite quickly 29 detained Uzbek refugees who fled a violent crackdown by government troops in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan last month. United Nations officials and human rights groups condemned any forcible return of the men, saying they face the risk of torture or execution and are still entitled to a review of their asylum applications.

"There are well-founded reasons to believe that asylum-seekers in Kyrgyzstan, in particular those currently in detention, may face an imminent risk of grave human rights violations, including torture and extra-judicial and summary executions, if returned to Uzbekistan," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour in a statement.

Kyrgyz Prosecutor General Azimbek Beknazarov described the refugees as criminals who were freed from prison in Andijan on May 13 in an armed assault that was the catalyst for a mass anti-government demonstration in the city. Government troops and security forces put down the protests and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians among thousands who flooded the streets of Andijan after the prison break, according to human rights groups.

"These are criminals, they killed people," said Beknazarov in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. "They need to be punished; their place is in prison." He said the men could be extradited within a week.

But Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, who is at a conference in Moscow, said in an interview that the men would not be extradited until after the government finalizes its review of their asylum applications. It will conduct the review in conjunction with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Until we finalize our review we will not pass them over," she said, adding that the review could be completed in a few days. "We are working with UNHCR."

Officials in the interim government, which came to power following a popular revolt in March, appear to be caught between pressure from their much larger Central Asian neighbor and the demands of the international community.

The Uzbek government has given Kyrgyzstan an extradition list with 131 names, and it has applied intense diplomatic pressure to secure its request. But U.N. and Western officials insist that the 29 are entitled to a screening by UNHCR before they can be returned home, a process that foreign officials said could take several more weeks.

"There must be a proper procedure," said Antonio Guterres, head of the U.N. refugee agency, "not a hasty effort to rubber-stamp a politically expedient ending to the current tensions with Uzbekistan."

Otunbayeva, who was recently in Washington, had assured U.S. officials that the refugees' asylum applications would receive a full review. But Beknazarov appears to have already concluded that the 29 men have a criminal background and can be sent back on his order. He was dismissive of the concerns expressed by U.N. officials.

"They should work with refugees and we will work with criminals," he said.

Four refugees were returned two weeks ago over international objections. The Uzbeks have not allowed the Red Cross to visit them, which has heightened concern about their fate and what might happen to any other Uzbeks who are sent home.

Uzbek authorities described the May 13 demonstration as a riot and said it was organized by Islamic radicals and terrorists. The government said 173 people were killed, most of them militants. The government has rejected calls for an independent international inquiry into the events.

After the crackdown, about 500 people fled into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, of whom about 420 remain at a site near the southern city of Jalalabad.

The 29 facing extradition, who were taken into custody this month, are being held at a detention center in the city of Osh where they have been questioned by Kyrgyz investigators, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office said. They include four of 23 businessmen whose trial on charges of religious extremism led their relatives and supporters to storm the Andijan prison, freeing them and hundreds of other prisoners.

Even if Kyrgyzstan delays the extradition, but the 29 men are ultimately judged to be escaped criminals and not legitimate refugees, the country will face another legal issue before it can return them. The Convention on Torture prevents the forcible return of someone who is likely to face torture, and Uzbekistan has a well-documented history of using torture, according to the U.N. and human rights groups.

"If Kyrgyzstan sends them back, it is sending them back to almost certain torture," said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch. "And that is a violation of Kyrgyzstan's obligations under the Convention Against Torture."

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