By Dmitry Solovyov
ALMATY (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch Friday criticized Kazakhstan for extraditing 28 Uzbeks it said were likely to face torture at home.
"The Kazakh government has deliberately and forcibly sent individuals back to Uzbekistan where they face likely torture and persecution," Rachel Denber, HRW's Europe and Central Asia deputy director, 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."
The Uzbeks were handed over to neighboring Uzbekistan on June 9. They are Muslims who fled Uzbekistan fearing religious persecution and were wanted by Uzbek authorities on various anti-state and religion-related charges.
This week, Kazakhstan was criticized by human rights bodies for not granting political asylum and handing over to China an ethnic Uighur wanted by Beijing on terrorism charges.
The Uzbeks held mandates of refugee or asylum seekers' certificates issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Kazakh Foreign Ministry press secretary Ilyas Omarov told Reuters.
But the UNHCR decided to revoke the refugees' mandates after the Commission on Refugee Status in Kazakhstan, which included a UNHCR representative, denied refuge for the 28 persons "accused of committing grave and especially grave crimes in their home country," Omarov said.
"The Prosecutor General of the Republic of Uzbekistan provided written assurances that the rights of the detained citizens of Uzbekistan would be respected after their extradition," he said.
Uzbekistan also promised that members of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization and several international human rights groups would have free access to Uzbek penitentiaries to be able to monitor the observance of the rights of those extradited.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch cited a 2007 report by the U.N. Committee against Torture which found that torture in detention in Uzbekistan was "routine" and "with impunity."
"Kazakhstan has shown its utter disregard for its binding international commitments," said Denber. "As a leader of regional groups, Kazakhstan has an even greater duty to promote the protection of human rights, but right now, it needs to make a drastic shift in course."
Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy, chairs the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by China and Russia, and was the 2010 chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.