On the Uznews.net article: “Uzbek Religious Refugees: Pity Them or Fear Them?”

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On November 1, Uznews.net published an article on these cases headlined “Uzbek Religious Refugees: Pity Them or Fear Them?”

Twenty-nine Uzbek asylum seekers were arrested in Kazakhstan in June, 2010 on an extradition request from the country’s neighbour Uzbekistan. Seventeen of them were stripped of their status as UNHCR asylum seekers in August and face ill treatment, unfair trials and  possibly torture upon extradition to Uzbekistan. 

No court has yet established the guilt of the Uzbeks in question, yet the article was written in an obviously accusatory tone. This is a classical example of violation of the presumption of innocence. The article provided no critical analysis of Kazakh immigration officials’ allegations that the detainees pose a threat to Kazakhstan’s national security yet the story's authors did criticize human rights defenders, who according to the story, failed to mentioned that the 29 detainees were "Islamic fundamentalists."

A campaign in defense of the refugees arrested in Astana was launched after the UNHCR refused to provide them with a lawyer for three months. Meanwhile, Kazakh prosecutors ordered detention facilities to prepare the inmates for extradition. Not all relatives have been allowed to visit the detainees and care packages and visitation rights are being restricted.

Meanwhile, evidence has emerged that some of the detainees may have been tortured in custody. This is not the first time Kazakhstan has complied with questionable Uzbek extradition orders. In November, 2005 Kazakhstan repatriated ten Uzbeks that were under its custody. All were subjected to torture and given long-term prison sentences in Uzbekistan. They were coerced through torture to testify against Imam Obdhon Qori Nazarov as well as people who had attended his sermons before the Imam himself fled Uzbekistan. The Imam and his sympathizers have been accused of "terrorism," a charge often used against pious Muslims who don't adhere to government-backed mosques and preachers.

On the basis of testimony obtained using torture Uzbekistan sent extradition requests to Kazakhstan and Ukraine in June 2010 for a number of Muslim refugees residing in those countries. The request was followed up with a series of arrests of Uzbek refugees by Kazakh and Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.

In March 2010, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia received several reports from Uzbekistan that refugees extradited from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan in 2005 underwent torture after being sent home. In April 2010, state-owned Uzbek television station Uzbekistan released a documentary titled Khunrezlik (Bloodshed) accusing Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov and his followers of terrible crimes. It was clear that the documentary was filmed on orders from the Uzbek National Security Agency (SNB). We have drawn parallels between Khurezlik and the article that appeared in Uznews.net. Their similarity lies in an shared prejudice against Obidhon Qori and his associates.

The Uznews.net story endorsed the actions of the Kazkah authorities by claiming that the detainees were Islamic fundamentalists. However, Islamic fundamentalism is not a term used in international law or any national law that corresponds to international standards. Hate speech  and incitement of violence are recognized in law as crimes but none of the Uzbek refugees have been accused of either. Nor has any evidence been brought forward that would suggest they are complicit in incitement of violence or hatred.

One may like or dislike the views of the Uzbek Muslims detained by the Kazakh authorities. But human rights, including the right to a fair trial, should be protected regardless of political and religious affiliation. If the detainees are suspected of wrong-doing they are still entitled to a legal defense and a fair trial, neither of which is guaranteed in Uzbekistan.

The article's author points to the fact that the wives of the asylum seekers wore traditional Muslim head scarves as a criticism. But if there is no evidence that the women were forced to wear the head scarves such commentary is both inappropriate and irrelevant and serves only as a tasteless justification of the Kazakh authorities actions. We would happily condemn those who force women to wear traditional Islamic garb if there is evidence of this taking place. Uznews.net has presented no such evidence.  One of the detainees wives, who was given her husband's clothes for washing by prison officials, notices stains that resembled blood on a shirt.

Police in Oslo have accused a trio of asylum seekers in Norway of attempting to blow up oil platforms as well as attacks on a Danish cartoonist who drew pictures of the prophet Mohammed. The accused are Muslims hailing from China, Iraq and Uzbekistan. The defendant from Uzbekistan denies the charges and a Norwegian court has not yet ruled in the case. However Uznews.net along with a  number of other internet publications have ambiguously linked the case to the arrest of the Uzbek refugees in Kazakhstan and further tarnished their reputations without questioning Kazakh assertions that the "group of Uzbeks belong to banned Islamic organizations and represent a threat to national security."

The Kazakh and Uzbek security services have used everything at their disposal to produce negative coverage of the Uzbek asylum seekers. Uznews.net appears to be part of this negative information campaign. Its editor, Galima Buharbaeva should expect to be rewarded handsomely for her efforts.

The refugees' efforts, however, to use international protections in their defense were also viewed negatively by the authors of the Uznews.net article. "How do we deal with Uzbek refugees who have radical Islamic ideas and only mention secular democratic principles when their own rights and freedom are under threat?  This question is more difficult than ever to answer," Uznews.net wrote.

Should this be interpreted as a call to forgo international law when dealing with the "bad guys" who, it stands to reason, deserve to be sent into the arms of dictators like Islam Karimov for re-education?

The answer is of course very simple: Every refugee deserves protection from forcible extradition, in accordance with international law. Even if the refugees violated the law and belong to banned groups, they still have the right to an independent and fair trail, protection from torture and ill-treatment, and access to a legal defense.

Nadejda Atayeva,

President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia - AHRCA