Concern at Uzbek Treatment of Kyrgyzstan Refugees

By News Briefing Central Asia   - Central Asia
9 Jul 10
Human rights defender Yelena Urlaeva has gathered worrying evidence that some of the refugees who fled ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan were interrogated on arrival in Uzbekistan, and that a number were taken away to unknown locations.

Urlaeva, who heads the Uzbek Human Rights Alliance, gave an interview to NBCentralAsia after visiting hospitals in the eastern Andijan province, where ethnic Uzbeks injured in the violence were taken.

Some 80,000 people crossed into Uzbekistan, though most have since returned. The Kyrgyz authorities say people who were given medical treatment in Uzbekistan have now been transferred to hospitals in Osh and Jalalabad. However, some refugees, including a number with injuries, are still in Andijan as they are afraid to go back.

NBCentralAsia: How did you manage to visit hospitals when they were being guarded by Uzbek police?

Urlaeva: I had to put on national dress, take a large bag of bread and wait near the wards for several hours until the guards went away, and then ran in to see the injured people. All the wards with wounded refugees were guarded by officers from the Uzbek prosecutor’s office.

They [prosecution officials] say that the location of refugees is confidential…. Virtually no one has been allowed in to see these patients, and on my last visit I wasn’t allowed to give them humanitarian aid.

NBCentralAsia: Did you speak to the injured people? What did they say?

Urlaeva: All of them were in serious condition with deep gunshot wounds. They couldn’t move and could barely talk. I conducted short interviews, gathered eyewitness testimony and recorded everything.

We human rights activists are concerned about two issues – the interrogation of injured refugees, and disappearances from Uzbek hospitals.

They aren’t being allowed to speak, and they’re afraid of doing so. But they still told me that local investigators from the prosecutor’s office conducted lengthy interrogations asking them how they got their wounds.

That’s outrageous. These people are victims, they were seriously injured, and it is inhumane to interrogate them when they are in that condition. They are being treated as culprits rather than as victims, and it is all taking place under harsh conditions. What they need is medical treatment.

The injured people told me that many of their neighbours on the ward had disappeared. No one knows where they were taken to. Where are they? There is no way of contacting them. The injured people suspect that the Uzbek authorities arrested some of the refugees.

Some of refugees said they did not want to return to Kyrgyzstan, as they remain very fearful after the bloody conflict there.

They asked for assistance in going to third countries – to Kazakstan or Russia, at least. But it’s unclear how they could get to [the Uzbekistan office of] the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as they are hardly going to be allowed to move around. International humanitarian organisations have so far been unable to help them, as they have no mandate to do so.

My brief interviews with these people and the oppressive atmosphere of secrecy that reigns in Andijan itself and at the closely guarded hospitals where the refugees are being held all gave me the impression that the authorities are trying to hide something. When I was on my way to Andijan, some unidentified people called me on the phone and issued threats. That means there are people who don’t want journalists and human rights activists to discover the truth.

NBCentralAsia: Why do you think the authorities don’t want this? Surely everyone is interested in a fair investigation of these events.

Urlaeva: I think the authorities are afraid that the truth might be quite unexpected, as was the case with our own Andijan events [the violent suppression of protests in 2005].

NBCentralAsia: Does your information indicated there other refugees still in Andijan province apart from those with injuries?

Urlaeva: Yes, there are still about 1,000 people hiding with relatives. They are afraid to go out as they’ll be either forced to return to Kyrgyzstan, where there are still a lot of armed individuals, or else they will be arrested. They are in hopeless position, completely defenceless. It’s a tragedy for them.