Asia-Pacific

Refugee fight for Uzbek group in Kazakhstan

Wives and mothers of the men attend a hearing in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Image caption Relatives of the Uzbek men have been in court to hear proceedings

A group of women in headscarves listen attentively to a judge in a cramped room in Almaty's district court.

In the absence of the men whose fate is being decided in a series of trials, their wives and mothers are attending the hearings.

Judge Dauren Tleubayev reads out his ruling in the case of one of the men, Uktam Rakhmatov.

The migration department's decision is upheld - he is denied refugee status.

Mr Rakhmatov is one of 29 Uzbek asylum seekers in Kazakhstan facing extradition back to his homeland.

The men were detained in a series of raids on refugees' houses in Almaty in early June and have been in the custody of the Kazakh authorities ever since.

All of them are devout Muslims and claim to have experienced religious persecution in Uzbekistan.

But the Kazakh authorities say the detainees have failed to prove they are victims and instead claim there is strong evidence they belong to a banned religious organisation.

Uzbekistan - an authoritarian state which has banned numerous religious and political groups - has been accused of using the threat of Islamic militancy to justify repression.

It has charged the men with "religious extremism" and wants their extradition.

Some were granted refugee status by the UNHCR. But in early 2010 a new law came into effect in Kazakhstan transferring the right to determine refugee status to the government.

A special state commission was set up to examine each case, including the ones already determined by the UNHCR. All of the men bar one were refused refugee status. The UNHCR then withdrew refugee status from 17 of the men.

So far appeal cases of nearly half of the group have been heard and all have been rejected.

'Not terrorists'

Some of the men say they used to gather in groups to study the Koran, the canons of Islam or learn Arabic language, but they deny links to banned groups.

Image caption Akbarova Rahima says her son was beaten by Uzbek police

"I can't speak for the whole group, but those I knew well were not members of any radical Islamist group," said Alisher, an Uzbek refugee who had attended the gatherings.

In November, the men in detention appealed to the UN and other international organisations for help.

"We are not extremists or terrorists. The Uzbek government wants to punish us because we dared to run away and complained about them," they wrote.

They expressed disappointment with the UNHCR's decision to withdraw refugee status from them and for not specifying the grounds upon which the decision was made.

But the UNHCR has stood by its decision.

"The status was reviewed in the light of new information that was presented," said Babour Baloch, a communications officer with UNHCR in Geneva. "The new information was detailed and sufficient enough to cancel the refugee status of those individuals."

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov said the assessment process had been both objective and transparent.

"Kazakhstan adheres to its international obligations but we also have bilateral commitments. The Uzbek government has provided strong evidence - which we have no reason not to believe - that these men are accused of terrorism," he said.

"This is a complicated issue and that explains why the process has been taking so long. No final decision has been made yet, the appeal process is still ongoing."

Security concerns

Dosym Satpayev, a Kazakh political analyst, says Kazakhstan is in a difficult position.

"The authorities here decided that keeping these people in the country could pose a threat to national security," he said.

"The problem is the West does not want them either. There is less tolerance towards religious refugees there, again because of security concerns.

"On the one hand the West will not say openly that they don't want these refugees, and on the other it is turning a blind eye as Kazakhstan has to extradite them."

This is not the first time that Uzbekistan has put pressure on Kazakhstan to extradite individuals who are wanted for religious extremism or for being members of banned religious organisations.

Some argue that whether or not the men are members of a radical group they should not be sent back to a country known for its abysmal human rights record.

Human Rights Watch has urged Kazakhstan's prosecutor general not to return individuals to a country where they were likely to face torture.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch put Uzbekistan among the worst human rights abusers in the region, saying that torture is routinely used against political and religious prisoners.

The US state department in its 2009 Human Rights Survey highlighted the risks facing those charged with "religious extremism".

"Family members reported several deaths in custody of prisoners who were serving sentences on charges related to religious extremism," it said.

"In each such case, family members reported that the body of the prisoner showed signs of beating or other abuse, but authorities pressured them to bury the body before a medical professional could examine it."

'Beaten'

Twenty-year-old Akbarov Faizulla is one of the men whose refugee status was cancelled by the UNHCR.

His mother claims he has severe heart problems and lost his hair while in detention in Kazakhstan.

"I made him leave Uzbekistan after he was detained for three days by the Uzbek police and severely beaten," she said.

"They forced him to take responsibility for crimes he did not commit. He was just reading namaz (Muslim prayer) five times a day, but I know as a mother he was not involved in any anti-constitutional activities."

"When I asked the deputy prosecutor here in Almaty to give permission to see my son he shouted at me and said he is sick of people like me, and that very soon my son will be sent home, and I can go visit him as many times as I want," she wept.

The wives and mothers of the detained refugees have been campaigning for months for their release: staging daily vigils in front of the UNHCR offices in Almaty, writing to the Kazakh authorities and even the US president.

At first, many were afraid to reveal their identities - worried about the repercussions for their extended families back in Uzbekistan. But today they are ready to show their faces and to speak openly, to do anything to stop their husbands and sons being extradited.

No evidence concerning the men's involvement in terrorism or religious extremism has been made public.

To date the West has kept quite. Kazakhstan says it is fulfilling its bilateral obligations. The men's fate seems set.

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