U.S. has grave concerns over Kazakh refugee arrest
By Michael Steen
ALMATY (Reuters) – The United States said on Wednesday it
was gravely concerned about the arrest in Kazakhstan of a human
rights activist who witnessed an Uzbek government crackdown in
the eastern town of Andizhan.
Kazakh police arrested Lutfullo Shamsudinov in the Central
Asian state’s biggest city Almaty late on Tuesday. The United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has
granted him refugee status, has not been able to visit him.
“(His arrest) is something about which we have very, very
grave concerns,” U.S. ambassador John Ordway told a news
conference. “In accordance with the international refugee
convention, Kazakhstan is obligated not to return him to his
country of origin.”
The United Nations has said Uzbek refugees who are sent
home face possible torture and summary execution.
Shamsudinov was in Andizhan on May 13 when witnesses,
including a Reuters correspondent, said they saw troops opening
fire at people in the center of the town where armed rebels had
occupied a building and unarmed civilians had gathered.
Witnesses said about 500 people were killed, including
women and children. Uzbek officials say 176 people died in a
police operation against “terrorists” in the town, which lies
in the heart of the Ferghana Valley.
In Tashkent, a spokesman for Uzbekistan’s National Security
Services, Olimjon Turakulov, said Shamsudinov was wanted on
terrorism charges and for “spreading information with the aim
of provoking panic among the population.”
Kazakh officials have not commented on the arrest of
Shamsudinov, who fled his homeland on May 27.
Neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where as many as 500 refugees fled,
has already sent back four registered asylum seekers, following
pressure from Uzbekistan. It has said it may deport a further
29 people soon following an extradition request from
“If refugees were returned every time a home country
accused them of a crime it would totally undermine the
(refugee) convention,” Ordway said.
KAZAKH RIGHTS RECORD QUESTIONED
Kazakhstan, which has a smaller population than Uzbekistan
but is far richer due to booming oil exports, has in the past
sought to highlight its superior human rights and democracy
record, but it has come in for increasing criticism.
At the end of May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
withheld “certification” of Kazakh progress on human rights,
citing a flawed parliamentary election, restrictions on
opposition political activity and the banning of a newspaper.
Under U.S. law, the State Department must annually certify
progress on human rights to enable Congress to approve
financial aid. A U.S. official said Kazakhstan would
nonetheless receive the $17 million it was due under a waiver
to protect U.S. national interests. U.S. oil firms Chevron and
Exxon Mobil both operate one of Kazakhstan’s major oilfields.
The tougher U.S. line on Kazakhstan’s human rights record comes
amid growing anti-Western sentiment in the region and ahead of
a possible presidential poll in Kazakhstan in December.
Central Asia’s long-serving leaders, none of whom has won a
vote judged free and fair by Western monitors, suspect
Washington of stoking “bloodless revolutions” in Ukraine and
Georgia and a coup in Kyrgyzstan.
(Additional reporting by Shamil Baigin in Tashkent)