Kyrgyz Hand Over 4 Refugees

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan's security services have sent home four Uzbeks who fled a government crackdown in the eastern town of Andijan last month, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.

"Of course we are appalled by the news," said Carlos Zaccagnini, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees mission head in Kyrgyzstan, saying the move was a breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention and of Kyrgyz national law.

Human rights campaigners said they feared refugees might face torture if sent back to Uzbekistan. Around 500 are sheltering in Kyrgyzstan.

"We have issued an urgent appeal to the Kyrgyz government today to cease all further deportations of Uzbek asylum seekers until a proper procedure has been carried out to see whether or not they are refugees," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said at a news conference in Geneva.

Uzbekistan has been pressuring Kyrgyzstan to hand over 12 refugees who escaped from a jail in Andijan. They are thought to include some of the 23 Muslim businessmen whose trial on religious extremism charges sparked the May 13 Andijan rebellion, during which armed supporters broke them out of jail, a Western diplomat said.

The UNHCR named the four sent back to Uzbekistan as Dilshod Hadjiev, Tavakal Hadjiev, Abdubais Hasan Shakirov and Muhammad Kadyrov. Their fate was not known.

Zaccagnini said UNHCR had agreed on Thursday to the transfer of 16 asylum seekers -- including the 12 former prisoners -- from a camp near the southern Kyrgyz town of Jalal-Abad to a detention center run by the security services for interrogation.

On Friday, UNHCR visited the 12, whom they found "very shocked but otherwise in good health," Pagonis said. But they were told the other four had been "sent back."

Zaccagnini said UNHCR had agreed to the arrangement only on the condition that it would have frequent access to them and that their rights as asylum seekers would be respected.

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry and the SNB security services declined to comment. But later Pagonis said acting First Deputy Prime Minister Felix Kulov had condemned the deportations and ordered an investigation.

Uzbekistan says 173 people, most of them alleged to be terrorists, died during violence in Andijan last month. Independent reports put the figure at 500 or more killed in police action against a crowd of demonstrators, including women and children.

Acting Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva, who began a visit to Washington on Monday, said last Wednesday that no refugees would be sent back to Uzbekistan unless they were proven to be violent criminals.

She pledged to uphold the Refugee Convention, which Kyrgyzstan has signed.

Edil Baisalov, a prominent democracy and rights campaigner, said handing over the refugees would harm Kyrgyzstan's international image.