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The situation of the Uzbek refugees: New threats and methods of pressure

Article by Nadejda Atayeva

November 21, 2016

It wasn’t very long ago that citizens of Uzbekistan were confident that living abroad and having refugee status meant safety. They were sure that emigration was a panacea for them and for their relatives left behind in the country of origin. Many have already seen the loss of this illusion.

 

In 2005-14, within the framework of refugee assistance, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA) documented 114 cases of extra-territorial repression. Almost all those concerned were declared wanted by Uzbekistan. At that time, half of them already had refugee status, others were UNHCR applicants. The AHRCA continue our monitoring activity, and we have discovered 45 similar cases over the past two years. Moreover, in half of the cases extra-territorial repression was repeated and became harsher.

 

Thus, refugee status or even citizenship of European countries, the US or Canada does not always provide effective protection. This situation deserves the most serious attention.

 

How does the secret service of Uzbekistan collect information about political emigrants? What methods of pressure are used against them if they keep up their civil engagement after emigrating? What are the threats to Uzbek citizens who live abroad for a long time? Such questions arise when we examine the risks to Uzbek political emigrants.

 

Over the past one and a half years, the situation of Uzbek refugees has considerable worsened. Especially most complicated are the situations of those who are still in the countries of the former USSR, with their old Uzbek passports, who are wanted by Uzbekistan but keep up their civic activity through the mass media or on their personal Facebook pages.

 

Even those who have been granted residence permits in Europe, the USA, or Canada do not feel safe if they are wanted by INTERPOL. The strengthening of the international investigation system after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015 has led to more frequent arrests and extradition requests. Now, hotels, transportation and other amenities in the West where personal data are registered are involved in the search system. Unfortunately, the updated security systems do not take into consideration the potential abuse of INTERPOL mechanisms such as the false charge fabrication practices used by repressive regimes such as Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, there are more than 12,000 prisoners convicted under politically motivated sentences.

 

Unfortunately, in free democratic countries where Uzbek citizens find refuge, the personal data of people under international protection are not protected. We know from reliable sources that telecommunication companies display data about their customers in open reference resources. With the help of such resources it is very easy to find the home address and telephone numbers of political emigrants just by knowing their names. Public critics of the regime are in serious danger. There are instances whereby after an interview with a human rights activist or a political leader is published, an all-round harassment in social media is unleashed against them. Insults and threats, anonymous phone calls and libel campaigns are used in which relatives living in the country of origin are forced to take part. The relatives are coerced and pressured in order to stop the political emigrants’ participation in the investigation of corrupt transactions in which high ranking officials are involved or their activity in human rights projects. More and more often, law enforcement agencies put pressure on activists by confiscating their property in their home country or sentencing them to jail in absentia without the possibility of appeal. All the above mentioned circumstances emerge unexpectedly for Uzbek citizens who live abroad for a long time and affect their future lives in profound ways.

 

Daniel Anderson and the ‘Norwegian syndrome’

The number of persons who have returned from Norway to Uzbekistan between 2014 and November 2016 who have been jailed has reached 30, with varying sentences. In case of their return to their home country, dozens of citizens of Uzbekistan living in Scandinavian countries risk being arrested based on self-incriminating testimonies given under duress. This process is on-going.

 

Norway is an attractive country for Uzbeks because it has jobs, living standards are higher than in Uzbekistan and, as it seemed until recently, life there is safe. Back in 2007, some entrepreneurs even decided to open a ‘business’ consisting of cheap labour recruitment to Norway. An agency was opened in Uzbekistan to recruit potential workers for jobs in Norway and it helped them in obtaining the Schengen visa. That way, it facilitated the illegal transportation of people across borders (smuggling).

 

There were many candidates. They paid the fraudsters between five to ten thousand US dollars in cash. The migrant workers came to Norway where they were met by other intermediaries. Instead of job contracts those intermediaries wrote false stories for them to be submitted to the migration service and dragged them into the refugee status-obtaining procedure so that their clients could live for free in the refugee camps and then obtain the right to live in Norway legally. After their applications were considered, the applicants received work permits and could find jobs without the intermediaries’ help.

 

In 2008, a serious scandal occurred. 17 migrant workers came to Norway from Bukhara. As usual, they were taken to the refugee camp and were offered to apply for political asylum pretending they were gay or that they were witnesses of the Andijan events of 2005. It was hoped that because Uzbek law persecutes sexual minorities, Norway would grant refugee status to these pseudo-refugees. They lived for several days in the camp and video-recorded the living conditions of people from Uzbekistan, they made up a list of the Uzbek applicants and declared that they wanted to go back home because they had been cheated. Norway then deported them.

 

After a while, Uzbek TV ran a documentary about fraudsters exporting ‘traitors of the motherland’ to Norway. The people shown in the documentary said they were cheated, came back, voluntarily submitted themselves to the National Secret Service of Uzbekistan (SNB), and gave over all the information which they had collected in the refugee camp.

 

Norway has been under close attention from the SNB, especially since 2000, when it granted refugee status to the leader of the Erk opposition party, Mukhammad Salikh. In 2008, after the 17 Bukhara migrant workers cheated by fraudsters returned home, the Uzbek law enforcement agencies started developing their own informant network in Norway. Soon after that, the Uzbek authorities found out how and through whom migrant workers were going to Norway and Sweden and also the reasons some of them did not go back to their home country.

 

In December 2014, in Uzbekistan, a propaganda programme entitled Hiyona[1], translated from Uzbek as ‘Betrayal’, was run on the Oʻzbekiston national TV channel just several days before the trial of the characters shown in the documentary. No-one is surprised by the violation of the presumption of innocence in Uzbekistan. For 35 minutes of the film’s duration, its authors present their version of the story of the eight men, six of whom sought refugee status in Norway.

 

In Norway, they worked and went to the mosque on Fridays. From time to time, they would get together and watch documentaries on the internet about the suffering of Muslims in war-ridden countries and sent a share of their earnings to help them. They all repented with tears and asked for forgiveness from the Uzbek people ‘for perjury against Uzbekistan’ in Norway when they sought political asylum in violation of both Uzbek and Norwegian law. The film characters declared that they ‘repented committing a mistake by joining extremist organisations and betraying their Motherland’.

 

As it transpired during the trial, the main person shown in the film learnt about the documentary which was shown on national TV where fragments of interrogations recorded with hidden cameras were featured. In the courtroom, one of the defendants showed his tongue had been torn into two pieces and confessed that he was tortured during the inquiry and investigation.

 

In the court trial, it also transpired that two other men named Ilkhom Azamov and Temur Zoitov returned from Norway and reported to the SNB on six other defendants, those who had ‘made a mistake and betrayed their Motherland’. Azamov and Zoitov also lived in Norway and communicated with the ‘traitors’. Six people were convicted to twelve and thirteen years of jail. They were found guilty of complicity with a certain ‘Islamic Movement of Turkestan’[2] which was declared a terrorist organisation . Three more[3]  were convicted for the ‘Non-reporting of crime or harbouring of crime’. They were released under amnesty by the court.

 

The film and the trial had a profound effect on the public in Uzbekistan and abroad. The Norwegian government immediately reacted to the process. It decided to suspend all deportation cases of Uzbek citizens to their country of origin. And then, all departments of the Norwegian migration agency[4] started reconsidering the cases of Uzbek applicants and requesting information from human rights organisations.

Upon their return to Uzbekistan, the so-called ‘Norwegian Uzbeks’ were convicted for actions which they had not committed in Uzbekistan. In Norway, sexual minorities are not persecuted and watching the videos which they watched is not banned. These are typical stories of Uzbek citizens who are trying to find jobs in order to provide for their families in Uzbekistan. The consequences for many of them have proved to be very grave.

 

On 30th September 2016, a Norwegian citizen of Uzbek origin, Daniel Anderson, came back to Oslo from Uzbekistan[5]. For more than 18 years he had been living outside Uzbekistan, visiting his relatives from time to time. In March 2014, he received a phone call from Uzbekistan from a female relative who informed him that his mother was very ill. He was overwhelmed with emotion and he decided to visit his mother, unsuspecting that this was a provocation.

 

On 13 April 2014, he went to Kyrgyzstan. For fear of political repercussions for his participation in public protests and signing petitions against forced labour and protection of torture victims, he decided to try to enter Uzbekistan unnoticed. He crossed the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, walked through a village where houses of the residents of Uzbekistan and Southern Kyrgyzstan are divided by a road. Local residents are eligible to cross the border freely. There is no border control point there, so he walked safely into the territory of Uzbekistan. That same day he went to see his mother. After a few hours, a group of SNB officers came to his house. First, they took him to the passport agency and then to the investigation detention centre of the Ferghana SNB where he was tortured. He was sentenced to 9 years in jail[6]. He spent three years in jail. Anderson’s health was seriously damaged; he sustained injuries to his liver and kidneys.

 

The SNB officer was in the possession of information about Andersen’s connections with activists living abroad. The SNB investigator was a man whom he met in Oslo several times during Friday prayers in the mosque. Anderson could not deny his acquaintance with ten colleagues because during the interrogations he was shown photographs where he was with friends in Norway fishing and at public protests. The investigator told Andersen that he obtained these photos from his email; therefore, he thinks that his email inbox had been hacked. Anderson admitted that he was forced under torture to sign false evidence against Uzbek political emigrants Mukhammad Salikh, Nadejda Atayeva and Alim Ataev. He was forced to testify that these individuals sent him to Uzbekistan to organise a coup d’état.

 

Later, he discovered that, based on his evidence given under torture, criminal cases were opened against five persons who he used to communicate with in Norway. They rented temporary accommodation together and thus came to know each other. Based on that false evidence, criminal cases were opened against them and they were declared wanted. Such abuse of INTERPOL mechanisms has become a normalised practice in Uzbekistan.

 

Daniel Anderson says that in July 2016, seven migrant workers were deported from Norway to Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, they were not arrested immediately but only in September. First they were summoned for interrogation by the SNB and then new criminal cases were opened. He knows this because he was also summoned to the interrogation because one of those seven individuals told the investigator that he knew him. Concurrently, a new criminal case is being administered in respect of the already convicted ‘Norwegian Uzbeks’ who returned two years ago.

 

What happens to those who return to Uzbekistan?

Since 2012, we have been receiving information that residents of Uzbekistan who stay abroad for more than 3 months are scrutinised by passport control in the airport upon arrival. This has been documented in cases of those returning from a number of countries including Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt. This is due to the fact that there are considerable Uzbek diasporas in those countries. In a separate office room in the airport, they are interviewed by an SNB officer who often introduced himself as a counterintelligence department officer. First, he examines their passports and asked them standard questions about why they left to go abroad and what they did there. He also shows them photos of both familiar and unfamiliar persons and asked which of those persons the interviewee communicated with and under which circumstances.

 

We managed to interview applicants who personally experienced this, or whose relatives have done. Sometimes they were not able to recognise the people they were asked about. Those witnesses told us that the SNB officer had many photographs, mainly passport photos of a larger size. As a rule, the interviewees recognise several political emigrants[7].  Besides the personal photos, they are shown photos of people at meetings and rallies. It is possible that photo and video material is collected from the personal pages of political emigrants in social networks and through the SNB’s agents that have infiltrated the refugee population.

 

In 2013, in Sweden, a criminal case was opened in respect of an Uzbek citizen who was hiding in Uzbekistan from criminal liability for domestic violence committed in Sweden. They found on his computer photos of political emigrants who live in Sweden as well as libellous articles which were published later on the internet anonymously. Furthermore, there were photographs taken with a hidden camera in the airport, in a restaurant and in other public places in Sweden. Subsequently, a criminal case was opened against him in Sweden. He returned to Uzbekistan and soon after started an online periodical with anonymous provocative materials. The interviewed witnesses described the photographs that were discovered in this agent’s computer.

 

In 2013, in Tashkent airport, a female citizen of Uzbekistan who had a Swedish permanent residency permit due to her daughter’s illness was detained. She had returned to Uzbekistan in order to renew her passport. She was pregnant and she had a young daughter with her. She was detained while passing through border control as soon as they saw that she lived in Sweden. They held her for 11 hours without explanation and just asked her one question: “Why did you come?” When she explained the purpose of her visit, they started showing her photos, then they took her to a room with one bed. For 6 hours they wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom and didn’t give her food or water although her little daughter was crying from hunger. When she passed out, they gave her water and took her back to the SNB officer for further interrogation. She was trying to explain that in Uzbekistan it wasn’t possible to get medical treatment for her daughter and she didn’t know anybody in the photos. They shouted at her and forced her to sign a false statement that she was a member of the Erk Party. She refused to write a self-incriminating paper or give evidence against people whom she didn’t know and had never seen. After that, the SNB officer’s tone became especially rude and he threatened to deprive her of her parental rights.

 

They let her go thanks to a relative who called a confidential city hotline and said that she disappeared in the airport with a young ill daughter. They let her go after midnight. For more than 4 months the woman couldn’t change her passport or get permission to leave the country. They opened a criminal case against her under Article 223 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan (Unlawful entry and exit from the Republic of Uzbekistan) because she left Uzbekistan without an exit visa from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. However, our applicant didn’t violate the passport regime. She produced all the documents proving that she married in Sweden and her daughter was undergoing treatment there. Finally, she was compelled to leave Uzbekistan secretly and now she is afraid of going back. According to her neighbours, a few weeks after her departure a district police officer and SNB officers started visiting her residence address in Tashkent. Two years later the apartment was sealed in the presence of neighbours and a representative of the prosecutor’s office.

 

One of the applicants for support from the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia worked as the head of a shift at Tashkent airport. He testified that SNB officers have keys to all service exit doors of the airport. When individuals return to Uzbekistan via an extradition request they are always met by SNB officers. They take them to the SNB investigation detention centre on Krasnogvardeyskaya Street in Tashkent without a passport control stamp, therefore for many months, their relatives might not even know where they were arrested. They look for them in the meantime in the places where they were arrested prior to their extradition. Usually this happens if a citizen of Uzbekistan is arrested in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan. Even if lawyers join the search for the arrested party, it is not possible to find them quickly.

 

Information about who is detained in the SNB investigations detention centre is not always given to their lawyers, but only when the detainees have been taken to the Tashtyurma prison, which means that charges against them have already been brought. The main proof of guilt is the self-incriminating testimonies obtained under torture. They are even forced to give evidence against any political emigrants they have met or any that the SNB has information that they have met.

 

Observations by the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia show that there is an urgent need to carry out reform of the systems of the UNHCR and INTERPOL. Also, at the government level of the states who have ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, it is high time to create conditions whereby the country which is providing international protection to refugees also protects their personal data, in addition to ensuring the safety of those who engage in public activities and are subject to attacks by the secret services of their country of origin.

[1] Link to the film Betrayal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3CiOn61xcI&feature=youtu.be

[2] They were all jailed under the Articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan: 159 (Encroachment on the constitutional order of the Republic of Uzbekistan), 244-1 (Production and dissemination of materials containing threat to public security and public order), 244-2 (Creation, leadership, participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organisation), 246 (Contraband). See below for their names.

[3] Three more were convicted of the violation of article 241 CC RU (Non-reporting of crime or harbouring of crime): Zaitov Timur Tulkunivich, Agzamov Ikramhuja Bahramovich, Zakirov Akmal Akhmadalievich. They were amnestied by the court.

[4] Immigration Appeals Board (UNE), UNE stops return to Uzbekistan, December 2014, http://une.no/no/Aktuelt/Redegjorelser/UNE-stopper-returer-til-Usbekistan

[5] Hege Wallenius and Gordon Andersen, Daniel tells of escape from prison nightmare in Uzbekistan, VG, September 2016,

http://www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/usbekistan/daniel-forteller-om-flukt-fra-fengselsmareritt-i-usbekistan-jeg-trodde-jeg-skulle-doe-der-inne/a/23808803/#xtor=CS6-6-[23808803%20daniel_forteller_om_flukt_fra_fengselsmareritt_i_usbekistan_jeg_trodde_jeg_skulle_doe_der_inne]

[6] In 2014, Daniel Anderson was convicted for the violation of articles of CC Ruz: 160 (Espionage), 120 (Pederasty), 159 (Encroachment against constitutional order), and 223 (Unlawful entry and exit from the Republic of Uzbekistan) and sentenced to 9 years of jail. Conditional punishment was used for health reasons.

 

[7] Mukhammad Solikh, the leader of the Erk opposition party; Obidkhon Nazarov, a religious authority figure; Mukhammadsolikh Abutov, the founder and editor of the Tayanch website, Nadejda Atayeva, President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (this author); Kudrat Babadjanov, a journalist political emigrant; Yevgeniy Dyakonov, journalist, political emigrant; Ismail Dadadjanov, one of the leaders of the Birlik Party.

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