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(Berlin) – Uzbekistan police have detained two human rights activists in recent days as they documented forced labor in the country’s cotton fields.

On September 21, 2015, police detained and beat a prominent rights activist, Dmitry Tikhonov, as he was documenting people being sent to the cotton fields. Police detained Elena Urlaeva, another activist, and her companions, including her young son, on September 19 while Urlaeva documented people picking cotton.

Rights activist Dmitry Tikhonov was detained and beaten by the police as he was documenting people being sent to the cotton fields on September 21, 2015.  © Dmitry Tikhonov
Uzbek police detained Elena Urlaeva, a prominent human rights activist, while she was documenting people picking cotton.  © 2015 Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights

“Human rights monitors should be able to work without being beaten and carried off to jail,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the government is serious about eradicating forced labor it needs to send a clear message to police and local officials to allow independent monitors to work without interference.”

The government should prove that it will allow scrutiny of its labor practices by investigating the incidents and taking action to ensure the safety of independent monitors, Human Rights Watch said. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Bank should condemn retaliation against independent monitors and insist that the government does not interfere with their legitimate work. 

Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest began in early September. For years, the government has relied on the forced labor of over a million people each year – including children, teachers, medical workers, college and university students, and public employees – to pick cotton. It uses coercion, including intimidation and threats of loss of job, social welfare benefits, utilities, expulsion, and even prosecution to force people into the fields.

The ILO is conducting a survey of recruitment practices used to mobilize labor in the cotton sector as part of its agreement with the Uzbek government to apply labor conventions, including those eradicating forced labor. The ILO is also monitoring compliance with labor conventions prohibiting forced and child labor in World Bank project areas, under an agreement with the World Bank and Uzbek government.

The World Bank has pledged more than US$450 million to Uzbekistan, mostly for modernization of agriculture, and has committed to pull out the loans if forced labor is used in project areas. One of the project areas is the Buka district of Tashkent region. According to Tikhonov, the majority of people from Angren, a city in the Tashkent region, who have been forced to pick cotton are being sent to work in Buka.

Tikhonov, an independent activist, sent information to Human Rights Watch that on September 19, he documented busloads of people near the local administration building in Angren recruited by the local government leaving for the cotton fields and interviewed several people. Two local officials approached Tikhonov and asked him why he was taking photographs and asking questions about cotton and demanded his identification.

The next day, Tikhonov observed approximately 20 busloads of teachers and school employees about to leave for the cotton fields near a restaurant in Angren. A man approached Tikhonov and told him that he did not wish to pick cotton and was forced to find someone to pick in his place. While they were talking, several plainclothes officers from the criminal investigation department of the Angren police, whom Tikhonov recognized, approached, detained them, and took them to the local police station.

Officers told Tikhonov that they were detaining him because two local officials had complained that a “suspicious person” was taking pictures of cotton pickers. As they interrogated him, the head of the criminal division entered the room and began cursing and threatening Tikhonov, then hit him repeatedly in the face and head with a thick stack of paper.

According to Tikhonov, the official yelled: “Cotton is our wealth and the achievement of the fatherland. You take photographs and videos. Who gave you the right to do this?” After he left the room, the officer interrogating Tikhonov told him that he “saw nothing.”

A half-hour later, two doctors arrived and asked Tikhonov if he had any injuries. When he told them that he had been beaten on the head and face, they asked him to lift his shirt and said they did not see any injuries. They refused to give Tikhonov a copy of their report. Officers then told Tikhonov to sign a statement attesting that he had no complaints about the police. Tikhonov refused. He was finally released after signing a statement that none of his belongings had been tampered with.

On September 19, Urlaeva, head of the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, her husband, their 11-year-old son, and a family friend went to Kuychirchik region, outside Tashkent, to go fishing. A local farmer, Sherzod Kamchibekov had invited them to stay on his land. Urlaeva told Human Rights Watch that in the late afternoon, while she and Kamchibekov were walking near the fields, she spoke to workers picking cotton and took several photographs.

Several police officers demanded their identification and asked what they were doing, then followed them and took them to the local police station. Around the same time, police detained Urlaeva’s husband and their friend and took them to the station, leaving their son alone near the river.

Urlaeva said that at the station, police told her that she had been arrested for photographing cotton fields without permission and that her husband had a stolen fishing pole. Police photographed them, interrogated and searched them, and recorded the interrogation on a video camera. They took apart her husband’s fishing pole, apparently looking for a hidden camera. Police brought in medical workers to administer a breathalyzer test and claimed that they detected alcohol on Urlaeva. She said she does not drink, though it’s not illegal in Uzbekistan.

Two hours later, police brought Urlaeva’s son to the station, photographed him, and asked him questions about his age and his school. Police forced Urlaeva, her husband, and their friend to write statements about why they were visiting the area, confiscated the memory card to Urlaeva’s camera, then finally released them without charge.

Police detained Kamchibekov overnight at the regional police headquarters and released him the next day without charge. Urlaeva said that Kamchibekov told her that police had accused him of espionage and warned him that he was prohibited from further contact with Urlaeva.

Authorities have repeatedly interfered with Urlaeva’s work to document labor practices and forced labor. They have detained her at least four times in the last four months and subjected her to severe ill-treatment in retaliation for her human rights work.

“Elena Urlaeva and Dmitry Tikhonov are standing up for the rights of millions of workers in Uzbekistan,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbekistan’s international partners, along with the ILO and World Bank, need to stand up for them and send the message to the Uzbek government that continued brutal treatment of peaceful activists will bring serious consequences.”


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