By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 10, 2006
MOSCOW, Aug. 9 -- Five people who fled the Uzbek city of Andijan to neighboring Kyrgyzstan last year during a deadly government crackdown were turned over to Uzbekistan on Wednesday. The decision drew swift condemnation from the United Nations and human rights groups, which said the men now face the prospect of being tortured or executed.
Four of the five who were returned had been granted refugee status by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and officials at the agency's Geneva headquarters said their deportation violated international law and the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian republic, has signed. The fifth deportee was seeking asylum but had not yet been granted refugee status.
"We fear for their safety," said António Guterres, the high commissioner, in a statement, which noted that the United Nations had already secured resettlement places for the refugees. "This grave breach is a huge disappointment as the deportees' lives may be at stake."
Officials in Kyrgyzstan's government could not be reached Wednesday evening. Kyrgyz officials have alleged that the five committed serious nonpolitical crimes, and Kyrgyz courts have ruled that they did not qualify for refugee status.
The crisis in Andijan began on May 12, 2005, when dozens of armed men attacked government facilities and freed prisoners, including prominent local businessmen who were on trial on charges of religious extremism.
The following day, thousands of people joined a protest against the government. Uzbek security services opened fire on the crowd, killing hundreds of people, most of them unarmed, according to human rights groups and witnesses.
The Uzbek government said that 187 people were killed, most of them Islamic radicals, and it rejected calls for an independent international inquiry into the events.
Hundreds of people fled into Kyrgyzstan, and in July of last year more than 400 Uzbek refugees were flown out of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, to be settled in third countries, including the United States.
The United Nations and human rights groups have documented a long history of torture in Uzbekistan, which had granted use of an air base to U.S. forces to support military operations in Afghanistan. That relationship soured after Washington criticized the government's actions in Andijan and backed calls for an independent inquiry. The United States was later forced to vacate the air base.
"The U.N., the European Union and the U.S. government have all pressed Kyrgyzstan over the last year to abide by its obligations, and this is a very, very bad precedent for the region," said Rachel Denber of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, noting that other Uzbeks face deportation from Russia and Kazakhstan. "This is a country where systematic torture is practiced, and we continue to get, up until today, credible allegations of torture."