(Berlin) – Uzbek police detained a human rights activist on May 31, 2015, and subjected her to cruel and degrading treatment during an 18-hour interrogation about her work on forced labor, Human Rights Watch said today. Police and doctors forcibly sedated Elena Urlaeva and then subjected her to a body cavity search, x-rays, and other abuse.
Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the United States, European Union member states, the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank should unequivocally condemn the brutal treatment of Urlaeva. Uzbekistan’s partners should press the government to carry out a prompt, thorough, and effective investigation into the abusive treatment with a view to holding those responsible to account, and ensure that human rights defenders are able to conduct their monitoring work free of interference or abuse.
“This vicious assault on one of the country’s bravest human rights defenders can’t by any stretch of the imagination be construed as legitimate law enforcement and needs immediate, unequivocal condemnation,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The attack on Elena Urlaeva shows how far the government is willing to go to cover up evidence of forced labor and to retaliate against those who expose it.”
Police in Chinaz, a city in the Tashkent region, detained Urlaeva on May 31 in a cotton field as she was photographing and interviewing forced laborers in the cotton fields. Urlaeva photographed approximately 60 doctors from Chinaz whom local officials had forced to work in the fields. She also interviewed kindergarten teachers who said the mayor ordered them to weed cotton.
Uzbekistan uses one of the largest state-sponsored forced labor systems in the world to produce cotton, which nets enormous revenues for the government. It forces millions of its citizens into the fields every year to plant, weed, and harvest the cotton. The World Bank, which has pledged over US$450 million to three projects that support Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector, has promised to suspend financing if forced labor is detected in its project areas.
Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that police detained her in the field and took her to a local police station, where she was interrogated for 18 hours, and accused of hiding the camera’s memory card. Her message describing the incident said:
While I was at the Chinaz RUVD [district police station], one officer, not very tall, wearing a camouflage uniform, hit me on the head, and they interrogated me about where I hid the data card from the camera, they swore at me and yelled that I am an agent of America, that I am bringing shame on Uzbekistan for money and am giving state secrets to other countries, that they have shut the mouths of all other human rights defender enemies of the state and they only have me and [another human rights defender] left to deal with. They screamed why I still haven’t left [the country] and am making trouble for them with photographs and pickets.
A medical worker injected Urlaeva three times with sedatives, which left her drowsy and weak. She said that police and medical staff put her on a bed and forced her legs apart. The head of the police ordered a female doctor to search for the data card in Urlaeva’s vagina, which the doctor did. The doctor then asked the police to bring a gynecological instrument and they forced Urlaeva onto a chair and police officers and a male doctor held her arms and legs while the doctor used the instrument to search her vagina for the data card, causing bleeding.
Then the head of the police ordered the doctor to search Urlaeva’s rectum. After that, the police and medics carried Urlaeva on a stretcher to a hospital, where she was forced to undergo x-rays of her chest and abdomen.
Throughout the ordeal, police denied her access to the toilet and forced her to relieve herself outside the police station in the presence of police. Urlaeva says that the police filmed her and threatened to post the video on the internet if she complained about her treatment. Urlaeva said that police laughed at and humiliated her throughout her detention, calling her a “bitch.” They confiscated her camera, notebook, and information sheet on the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions.
Urlaeva, who heads the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, has long documented human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, including torture, the forced labor of adults and children in cotton production, and violations of housing rights. Uzbek authorities have frequently subjected her to abuse, including beatings, forced psychiatric treatment, arbitrary detention, house arrest, and fines for peaceful protests.
“Elena Urlaeva is one of the very few human rights defenders still in Uzbekistan standing up for the rights of people,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbekistan’s international partners need to stand up for her and send the message to the Uzbek government that this brutal treatment of peaceful activists has to stop.”
United Nations Human Rights Council members, including the US and EU governments, should show their concern about Uzbekistan’s abysmal record by creating a dedicated position for an expert to ensure sustained scrutiny and reporting on the human rights situation in the country. The Human Rights Committee, which monitors countries’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is set to review Uzbekistan’s human rights record in July.
Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the US government and the EU, should make clear the specific policy consequences that will follow if Tashkent does not take immediate, concrete steps to allow rights activists to carry out their work. The consequences should include targeted, restrictive measures such as visa bans and asset freezes against government officials responsible for grave human rights violations.
The ILO, which is operating inside Uzbekistan and monitoring labor rights, and the World Bank, which has financed several projects designed to promote reform of Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector, should vigorously respond to this attack, including by publicly denouncing it and pushing the Uzbek government to refrain from such abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The ILO and World Bank should take all necessary measures to prevent reprisals against community members, journalists, and independent organizations for monitoring or reporting on human rights violations in its project areas in Uzbekistan. The World Bank should secure an enforceable commitment from Uzbek officials that independent activists like Urlaeva will have unfettered access to its project areas, without reprisal.
The Uzbek government should conduct a prompt, effective investigation into Urlaeva’s detention and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. It should also investigate any violations of medical ethics by the doctors and medics who participated in the assault on Urlaeva.
It should hold accountable all officials and medical professionals found responsible for her mistreatment and issue a public statement reaffirming the rights of all citizens, including human rights activists and journalists, to carry out their peaceful work and exercise their rights of free expression, association, and assembly free of interference or retribution.
“If the many pledges by Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov over the years about guaranteeing freedom of speech and support for civil society mean anything, now is the moment to prove it,” Swerdlow said. “Only by holding accountable officials who torture and violate the fundamental rights of Uzbekistan’s citizens can he show his words should be taken seriously.”