Uzbek officials forced small business to close as punishment for not contributing to the cotton harvest, reports shop owner
The following article was originally published in the Uzbek language by Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty "Ozodlik," and the interview recording can be heard here.
Assia Schatilova, the owner of a small shop in the city of Chirchik, claimed that her business was ruined. because of her refusal to pay 750 thousand som ($120) during the cotton harvest in the autumn of 2015. Here is her account:
"I have owned a small shop since 2009. I paid all taxes, the rental costs and purchased the license for entrepreneurial activity. I conducted my business as required by law. Last year, when the cotton harvest started, I was told to pay over 750 thousand som for cotton. I refused. I am a single mother with two children, I have to feed and clothe them, I pay taxes, why should I have to pay for cotton?"
"Because of my refusal, on December 29, most of my property was seized. The deputy governor of the city of Chirchik, the chief of the city police and someone from the tax office came to my shop. They simply took a product from the shop in the value of approximately 85-90 million som ($15000). They took away my property for nothing, without a reason, without showing an order of confiscation. When they entered the store, I asked them who they were. In response, the police chief shoved me, I hit and damaged my finger straining a tendon and I am still being treated for it."
"On March 28, officers from the Tashkent regional tax office came back to check the financial documents of my store. They brought some paper, an unsigned photocopy, a document ostensibly to conduct a tax audit. They seized the remaining items in the store worth about 7.5 million som ($1300). Now I have to close my shop."
"Me and my two children were left without a livelihood. My children cried and asked why it happened. They kept asking, when there were so many people who traded without any permits, why would they go against me? My only fault is that I refused to pay the contribution for cotton."
By Judy Gearhart, Executive Director at the International Labor Rights Forum, and Abby McGill, Campaigns Director at ILRF, originally published on the Huffington Post here.
This week, more than 200 labor rights advocates from unions, companies, churches and non-governmental organizations are gathering in Washington, D.C. to honor Uzbek human rights defenders who have been documenting the Government of Uzbekistan’s ongoing use of forced labor in its annual cotton harvest. Unfortunately, only one of the invited honorees was able to attend due to increasing attacks from government officials. These brave activists take incredible personal risks to ensure evidence of state-sponsored forced labor is publicly available to the global governments and institutions that could influence the situation. But in a sad irony, those same governments and institutions speak in defense of persecuted activists only in private, if at all.
Neither violent repression of civil society actors nor international complacency is new in Uzbekistan. This same week in 2005, armed security forces under the leadership of the Uzbek Government gunned down at least 700 citizens and subsequently tortured dozens more in what became known as the Andijan massacre. After Andijan, the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on the Uzbek regime for its brutality, yet quickly softened enforcement and then let the sanctions expire. The brutality of the Uzbek regime has not softened, however, and it is time that the international community took forceful action in support of those struggling to promote a culture of freedom and against a regime that continues to coerce citizens to labor in agricultural fields against their will for the benefit of a wealthy elite.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has been in power since Uzbekistan’s emergence as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, oversees a forced-labor system of cotton production in which officials force more than a million Uzbek citizens to work in cotton fields under threat of penalty. This system is only possible through the state’s use of fear, established with both violence and regular coercion. Average Uzbek citizens are faced each fall with the choice between weeks of picking cotton, paying bribes to officials, or facing penalties imposed by the state, including job loss, expulsion from school, denial of social benefits and punitive tax investigations. Officials routinely try to silence those who seek to document this system, but 2015 saw a new level of official repression against those who openly document this egregious violation of human rights:
The second attack against Ms. Urlaeva came only a week after the Uzbek government met with the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Bank and several diplomatic missions in Tashkent to discuss the government’s systematic use of forced labor to produce cotton. Elena, Uktam and Dmitri all met with the ILO, World Bank, U.S. and European Union (EU) diplomatic missions in Uzbekistan repeatedly throughout the 2015 cotton harvest. ILRF and our allies on the Cotton Campaign have repeatedly, though unsuccessfully, urged these international organizations, the EU and the U.S. government to speak out publicly in defense of these activists. In Uzbekistan, where freedom of association is not respected, these brave citizens are doing the work of independent trade unions. We remain deeply concerned that quiet diplomacy leaves Uzbek human rights defenders at risk of continued repression.
Urgent action to press the Uzbek government to respect civil society and end forced labor is vital. We call for principled engagement that holds the Uzbek government accountable for its crimes. We call on governments and international organizations to take a firm, public stance against the Uzbek Government’s mass use of forced labor and repression of civil society, and condition support to the Uzbek Government on concrete reform.
Follow Judy Gearhart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ILRF
This article is by Tula Connell and was originally published by the Solidarity Center here.
A global union campaign is calling on the Uzbek government to reverse its conviction of Uzbek human rights activist Uktam Pardaev, who was sentenced to three years’ probation in January and is under constant surveillance by security services at his home. Officials also continue to harass Uktam Pardaev’s relatives and friends, who have been watched, questioned and threatened, according to global union and human rights groups.
Pardaev, a member of an independent cotton harvest monitoring group, was arrested in November 2015 on trumped-up charges of fraud and taking a bribe. He was held for eight weeks in pre-trial detention, where he was locked in a damp, cold cell with only a dirty mat to sleep on and little food. Pardaev says he witnessed officials torturing and mistreating detainees to coerce confessions and was beaten severely on one occasion.
Pardaev was among human rights activists monitoring last fall’s cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, where more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others are forced to pick cotton for weeks each harvest season. A report released in March documented how the government took extreme measures to cover up its actions last fall, jailing and physically abused those independently monitoring the process.
“The government unleashed an unprecedented campaign of harassment and persecution against independent monitors to attempt to cover up its use of forced labor while taking pains to make widespread, massive forced mobilization appear voluntary,” according to The Cover-Up: Whitewashing Uzbekistan’s White Gold.
Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, faced high penalties for not addressing its ongoing forced labor. But rather than end the practice, the government sought to cover it up, according to the report, produced by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
Take action now and send a message of support calling on the Uzbek government to reverse Pardaev’s conviction; conduct a prompt, independent, and impartial investigation into his credible allegations of ill-treatment by prison officials; and bring those responsible