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UNHCR Says Uzbek Asylum Seekers Remain Under Threat Of Deportation

Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan
The assistant United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is leaving for Kyrgyzstan to try to head off the forcible deportation of Uzbek asylum seekers. The agency says dozens of asylum seekers are under imminent threat of being sent back to Uzbekistan, where they could be in danger.

The United Nations refugee agency says some 450 Uzbek asylum seekers face deportation from Kyrgyzstan. They fled there last month during bloody riots in the Uzbek town of Andijan. The government says 173 people they brand as terrorists and criminals were killed. Opposition groups say up to 1,000 died, most of them civilians.

Spokesman Ron Redmond says the refugee agency is especially concerned that 29 asylum seekers are under imminent threat of being sent back to Uzbekistan. He says Assistant High Commissioner Kamel Morjane is expected to stay in Kyrgyzstan for three days and will meet with officials to find a solution to the situation.

"Earlier this week, we had received reports that the extradition of the 29, whom Uzbekistan says are criminals, was about to take place," Mr. Redmond said. "Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Kyrgyzstan is a signatory, it is forbidden to forcibly return asylum seekers to their country of origin. Forced return may also be in contravention of other conventions, such as the Convention against Torture."

Earlier this week, the United Nation's top human rights official, Louise Arbour, said there is reason to believe the asylum seekers may face grave human rights violations if they are sent back to Uzbekistan, including torture and extra-judicial executions.

Mr. Redmond says claims from the Uzbek government that the 29 asylum seekers are common criminals rather than refugees have not yet been proven. He says the men must undergo an intense screening process to determine whether or not they qualify as refugees.

He says more than 400 other Uzbeks living in a camp in western Kyrgyzstan also are being screened to determine their refugee status.

"Unfortunately, their situation has also taken a turn for the worse," he said. "We have received information that the Kyrgyz prosecutor general has asked for a further 103 people to be taken out of the camp and put in detention. On Thursday, Uzbek security officers in civilian clothes were being seen surrounding the camp."

Mr. Redmond says the Kyrgyz authorities are under pressure from Uzbek officials to return the asylum seekers. Two weeks ago, he notes, four men were deported to their homeland. He says no one knows what has happened to them since their return to Uzbekistan.