Uzbek Refugee who Applied to Strasbourg Disappears in Nizhny Novgorod

8 November 2012 

Elena Ryabinina

On 6 November 2012 it emerged that 4 days earlier, on 2 November, Uzbek national Azamatzhon Ermakov (b.1972) had disappeared in Nizhny Novgorod. His story gives compelling reasons to believe that he has become the latest victim of kidnapping and that he may already have been illegally rendered to his homeland.

Ermakov was detained in Nizhny Novgorod on 14 November 2009 at the request of the Uzbek authorities, who were searching for him on politically motivated charges of a religious nature. The Russian General Prosecutor's Office made a ruling on his extradition, which came into force after an unsuccessful appeal to the Nizhny Novgorod regional and Supreme courts. In the process, the grave risk that the Applicant will be tortured in Uzbekistan has been ignored, as indeed have the many signs that documents pertaining to the Uzbek investigation have been tampered with. So too has the outright illegality of the ruling to deport him, which was made before Azamatzhon's application for refugee status had been heard in full. However, it has not been possible to carry out the decision to extradite him because The European Court of Human Rights has suspended the extradition in accordance with Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. Consequently, as Russian law did not allow for him to be held in custody any longer than 18 months, Azamatzhon left prison in May 2011.

On 1 July 2011 he was arrested again, this time on suspicion of strolling around town in the summer heat with a grenade in the back pocket of his tight-fitting jeans. Azamatzhon maintained that the grenade was planted there at the time of his detention. He insisted that this was the case during the investigation and throughout the whole trial, which lasted for about a year, during which time he was repeatedly asked to admit his guilt and be released immediately, but, confident of his innocence, he flatly refused to incriminate himself. Finally, on 7 September 2012, the Kanavinsky District Court in Nizhny Novgorod sentenced Ermakov to 1 year and 4 months in prison and remanded him in custody until the sentence took effect. A cassation appeal hearing on the sentence is scheduled for 23 November 2012.

On 2 November, the lawyer Yuri Sidorov, who has been defending Ermakov since his extradition arrest in 2009, visited him in prison but was unable to meet his client. It turned out that prison officials had managed to get themselves an extra day off to commemorate the Federal Penitentiary Service employees' professional holiday, or at least those among them responsible for granting lawyers access to the prisoners had done. But on the first business day after the Day of People's Unity, which had already been marked by nationalist marches for a year, they informed the lawyer in prison that Ermakov had been released that same day, 2 November. It is not known what became of him.

Meanwhile, less than a week prior to this, Azamatzhon had once again confided his fears of being kidnapped on his release to his lawyer. In view of the fact that the practice of abduction and unlawful rendition of refugees to the country that they fled (refoulement) has been on the rise for the last year or so – refugees, who are protected under a Strasbourg ban from being sent home for any kind of legal proceedings, these fears are not without foundation.

The lawyer submitted requests to the local police station and to Nizhny Novgorod Municipal Prosecutor's Office that they investigate the disappearance of his client and initiate criminal proceedings if there should be any indications that a crime has been committed against him. Ermakov's representatives in the ECHR, in turn, informed the Court what had happened and sent requests to the General Prosecutor's Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs that they take emergency measures to establish his location. In addition, they wrote to the FSB, which contains Russia's Border Service, in order to establish whether Azamatzhon had crossed the Russian state border, and if so, then where, when and in what circumstances.

Each request by the Defence has drawn particular attention to the fact that Ermakov's case has already passed all preliminary stages in Strasbourg and is awaiting a substantive hearing. And if fears of his possible kidnapping and forced rendition to Uzbekistan are confirmed, it would mean another violation of Russia's obligations under Art. 34 of the European Convention (the right to apply to the ECHR), which is the one the Court ruled on barely a month ago in the case of Abdulkhakov v. Russia.

Finally, we recall who Azamatzhon Ermakov is: a person who was accused by Uzbek law enforcement officers of Islamic extremism, and against whom that unfortunate grenade allegation was 'substantiated' by the Russians, only to be deprived of his freedom before the case could be heard in Strasbourg. Here is a Russian translation of his autobiography, written 3 years ago, after he was detained as part of an Uzbek search:

"I was born and lived in the Zhalakuduksky region of Andizhan province. In 1995 I began to pray and, when there was time, I attended Friday prayers. Day in day out, from morning to evening, I delivered firewood and fodder on a cart and donkey to various parts of the village and to market, where I sold them. Many people know me because there is always business to be done for someone who drives an ass. I did not attend any meetings and did not know about them; I only recently heard about some of the comments that have been made against the Government when I was arrested. I have not even heard of the people with whom I have been accused. Among them I know only Azizbek, who lived in the same village as me. When they took him away, I got scared that I, too, would be taken, and would be tortured and made to confess to something that I did not do. That is why I left. I have heard those who have been in prison say that they would not wish such a life on puppies, let alone children. I am not in the least bit guilty, so please, do not send me back to my homeland."

Elena Ryabinina, head of the Right to Asylum programme, Human Rights Institute.