Activists Irate Over Deportation Of Uzbek Refugees

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s decision to deport 10 asylum seekers from Uzbekistan seeking refuge in Crimea has fueled protests in the halls of the United Nations and has human-rights activities crying foul, alleging that due process was violated.

An Uzbek man covers himself with a rug in a refugee camp outside the Kyrgyz village of Barash on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, 40km from Andizhan.

Their deportation also raises concerns that the refugees will face torture back home under the totalitarian regime of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, who last year used the military to crack down on pro-democracy protests resembling Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

The Uzbek citizens were detained by Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) on Feb. 7 in the Crimean towns of Nizhnygorsk and Belogorsk. They were put on a flight to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a week later.

Nine of the Uzbeks had already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as asylum seekers. The other one, according to UNHCR, was intending to register, but Ukrainian officials deported him before they could complete the procedure.

“UNHCR learned about the deportation of the Uzbek asylum seekers from the media,” said Natalia Prokopchuk, the spokeswoman for UNHCR’s Kyiv Office.

“We knew that they had been arrested, and our representatives were holding negotiations with the Security Service of Ukraine.”

Prokopchuk said SBU officials assured the UNHCR that legal procedure would be followed. The next day, the asylum seekers were deported.

SBU spokeswoman Marina Ostapenko said that the deportation was perfectly legal.

The process of obtaining refugee status involves two stages. First, a person applies to Ukraine’s Migration Service. If the migration service denies the asylum seeker, the applicant can appeal against the ruling. While the asylum seeker is waiting for a court decision, he is protected by law from deportation.

But, the Interior Ministry says, the Uzbeks waved their right to appeal the refusal and thus had no right to stay in the country.

Human rights activists disagree.

Alexander Petrov, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, said Ukraine broke at least three international agreements, including the International Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Convention against Torture.

“This event will negatively impact the image of Ukraine,” Petrov said. “This means that Ukraine does not abide by its obligations.”

Petrov does not think that the deportations were a mistake, recalling that the last time Ukraine deported opposition politicians back to Uzbekistan was in 1999, during Leonid Kuchma’s presidency.

UNHCR officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Uzbek authorities requested extradition of the asylum seekers because of the latter’s involvement in last May’s Andijan protests, which turned violent when Uzbek police and soldiers allegedly fired on a crowds. Hundreds were allegedly killed.

The [Uzbek] government has denied all responsibility for the killings. It claims the death toll was 173 — including law enforcement officials and civilians killed by so-called attackers. The government claims the attackers were “Islamic extremists,” who initiated “disturbances” in the city.

“Uzbek authorities did everything to hide the truth behind the massacre and have tried to block any independent inquiry into the events,” according New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Home sweet home

An activist with the Uzbek opposition Birlik (Unity) Party, Ismail Dadajanov, denied that the deported asylum seekers had anything to do with Andijan.

“[The charges] are not true,” Dadajanov said.

“Eight of them came to Ukraine six months before the Andijan events,” he added.

Tolib Yakubov, the head of the Society for Human Rights Protection in Uzbekistan, told the Post in a telephone interview that the Uzbek authorities often use the Andijan incident as a pretext to persecute people.

“Many people are trying to flee the country now,” Yakubov said, “and the authorities are branding every one of them as a criminal.”

According to him, the practice is widespread, and most cases are heard behind closed doors. Even the relatives of the defendants are not informed about the outcome of the trial.

Yakubov said that of about 500 members of his organization, seven are currently in prison, all serving terms from between five and seven years.

According to Dadajanov, the SBU actually detained 11 Uzbeks, but one of them, a 29-year-old named Khanzaev, disappeared.

“Our sources in Uzbekistan say that all 10 of them were arrested when they landed in Tashkent,” Dadajanov said adding “we have no idea what happened to Khanzaev. We are afraid that something bad has happened to him.”

Dadajanov ruled out media reports that Khanzaev had managed to avoid deportation, adding that Khanzaev has a heart condition and diabetes.

Unanswered questions

Yakubov said that on behalf of his organization, he personally appealed to the Ukrainian embassy in Uzbekistan to block the extradition of four well-known Uzbek opposition figures. But he didn’t get a response, and weeks later all four were deported to Uzbekistan and are currently in prison.

“They were all sentenced to 15 years imprisonment,” Yakubov said.

“After that I gave up on Ukraine,” he added.

Dadajanov says up to 2,000 Uzbeks have fled their home country and come to Ukraine, but only around 2000 are registered officially. The rest, according to him, are too scared to apply.

“Many questions remain unanswered,” said Ihor Semivolos, Executive Director of Ukraine’s Association for Middle East Studies.

“One of them is why the Uzbeks were deported in such a hurry.”

Semivolos thinks that after the asylum seekers were registered with the Ukrainian authorities, their information was sent to Uzbekistan for verification. The Uzbek security services then opened criminal cases and requested their extradition.

But he doesn’t blame Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko or the authorities in Kyiv.

“This was decided on the level of a certain region, a certain institution, and was due to the historical ties between the security services of the former [Soviet] republics,” Semivolos said.

On Feb. 21, Vasyl Fylypchuk, the head of the press service of the Ministry of Interior, backed the deportations, arguing that the Uzbek nationals had criminal ties.

Uzbek refugees living in Ukraine no longer feel safe here, Dadajanov said adding that they have begun asking UNHCR to find them asylum somewhere else.

Source: Kyiv Post