Kyrgyzstan's top prosecutor said Thursday that his country intended to quickly send home 29 Uzbek refugees who fled a violent crackdown by government troops in the Uzbek city of Andijan last month. U.N. officials and human rights groups have condemned any such move, saying the refugees face the risk of torture or execution and are entitled to a full 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," the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, said in a statement.
The Kyrgyz prosecutor, Gen. Azimbek Beknazarov, described the refugees as criminals who were freed from prison in Andijan on May 13. The assault that led to their breakout was the catalyst for a mass anti-government demonstration in the city. Government security forces put down the protests and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, according to human rights groups.
"These are criminals; they killed people," Beknazarov said in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. "They need to be punished. Their place is in prison." He said the men, who are being held in a Kyrgyz jail, could be extradited within a week.
But Kyrgyzstan's acting foreign minister, Roza Otunbayeva, said in an interview in Moscow that the men would not be sent back before the government completed its review of their asylum applications. That was being done in conjunction with the office of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, she said.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan's interim government, which came to power after a popular revolt in March, appear to be caught between pressure from their much larger Central Asian neighbor and the demands of the United Nations and Western governments.
"There must be a proper procedure, not a hasty effort to rubber-stamp a politically expedient ending to the current tensions with Uzbekistan," Antonio Guterres, head of the U.N. refugee agency, said in a statement.
According to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, the 29 people facing extradition include four of the 23 businessmen whose trial on charges of religious extremism led relatives and supporters to storm the prison, freeing them and hundreds of other prisoners.
Four refugees were returned two weeks ago over the objections of Western officials, and the Uzbeks have not allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit them. In total, Uzbekistan has asked for the return of 131 people.
Uzbek authorities described the May 13 demonstration as a riot and said it was organized by Islamic radicals and terrorists. After the crackdown, about 500 people fled into neighboring Kyrgyzstan; about 420 of them remain at a site near the southern city of Jalalabad. The Uzbek government has rejected calls for an independent international inquiry into the events.
If Kyrgyzstan delays the extradition but the 29 men are ultimately judged to be escaped criminals, the country will face another legal issue. The U.N. Convention Against Torture prevents the forcible return of someone who is likely to face torture, and Uzbekistan has a well-documented history of practices that meet the definition of the term, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.