Human Rights Watch condemned Kazakhstan's government on Friday for forcibly repatriating more than two dozen people to neighboring Uzbekistan, where the group says they may face torture.
The New York-based rights group said the 28 Uzbeks had fled their homeland fearing religious persecution and were wanted by Uzbek authorities on anti-government and religion-related charges.
By repatriating the Uzbeks, Kazakhstan has violated international law and failed to live up to its commitments to provide shelter for individuals seeking protection from persecution, the group said in a statement.
"This appalling move sets a terrible precedent throughout the region. Members of the international community should waste no time in condemning this in the strongest terms," said Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia deputy director.
In its latest report on Uzbekistan, the U.S. State Department noted that "torture and abuse were common in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts." That assessment is also reflected in several U.N. reports.
The Uzbeks have been held in custody in Kazakh jails since last year, when Uzbekistan filed a request for their extradition.
"The Attorney General of Uzbekistan has provided written assurances that they will respect the rights of the detained Uzbek nationals after their extradition," said Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov.
But HRW said those guarantees were largely meaningless.
"Diplomatic assurances are inherently unreliable from governments in states where torture and ill-treatment are systematic or widespread or where particular groups are routinely targeted for such abuse," the group said.
Omarov argued that Kazakh authorities coordinated with United Nations bodies over the Uzbek refugees' case and operated in a spirit of transparency and fairness. He also noted that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees itself had decided to revoke the Uzbeks' refugee status.
At least 10,000 men and women have been jailed in Uzbekistan on what rights activists describe as trumped-up charges of terrorism, membership in banned Islamist groups and attempts to overthrow President Islam Karimov's government, according to the respected Independent Human Rights Defenders Group based in Uzbekistan. It claims at least 39 inmates died of torture in Uzbek prisons last year.
Worried by the threat of radical Islamism from neighboring Afghanistan, former Communist boss Karimov has for years suppressed peaceful Muslims who practice their faith outside government-approved mosques.
The forcible repatriation by Kazakh authorities of a group of Uzbeks seeking shelter comes after a similar decision to send back ethnic Uighur refugee Ershidin Israil to neighboring China.
Israil fled to Kazakhstan after the July 2009 ethnic violence in China's far western Xinjiang region between the minority Uighur population and the majority Han Chinese.
Hundreds of Uighur were reportedly detained and sentenced to death for their involvement in the rioting. Rights activists say Chinese claims that Israil was involved in terrorist activities came as retaliation for his role in releasing details about a fellow ethnic Uighur being beaten to death by Chinese authorities following the unrest.