Thank you Mr. Chair,
Members of the Committee, ladies and gentlemen,
The government of Uzbekistan’s treatment of human rights activists, independent civil society groups, and journalists gives rise to deep concern. The government has refused to register all independent human rights groups operating in Uzbekistan except for one, Ezgulik, and it systematically harasses, persecutes, and interferes with independent human rights work, including that of Ezgulik, and other peaceful civil society activity. At least 15 human rights defenders are in prison and many others have fled the country over the past decade, due to persecution. At least four journalists in Uzbekistan are in prison, including the two longest-imprisoned journalists in the world, Muhammed Bekjanov and Yusuf Ruzimurodov. Although the government brought criminal charges against the activists and journalists and claims they are in prison because they committed crimes, numerous independent observers believe that the charges were trumped up and in retaliation for their human rights or journalism work. The trials did not meet international fair trial standards and in many cases there are credible allegations of torture and other ill-treatment during pre-trial detention and in prison.
In a very recent example of government interference with the work of human rights organizations and assaults on activists, police in Chinaz, a city in the Tashkent region, detained Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance, as she documented forced labor in the cotton fields. Urlaeva interviewed and photographed teachers and medical workers who said that local authorities ordered them to clear weeds from the fields. Police took Urlaeva to the district police station, where they interrogated her and subjected her to severe ill-treatment for 18 hours, including by injecting her with sedatives, and conducting a forcible body cavity search and x-rays, ostensibly to look for the camera’s memory card.
I would also like to draw your attention to the government of Uzbekistan’s use of widespread and systematic forced labor in the cotton and silk sectors. Cotton production in Uzbekistan is underpinned by one of the largest state-orchestrated forced labor systems in the world, undermining access to health, education, and other social services, and fostering widespread corruption. The government relies on forced labor to plant, weed, and harvest cotton. Government officials force millions to the fields each year using coercion, physical violence, and threats, including expulsion from education, loss of job, social benefits, or even prosecution. As of 2014, the government did not forcibly mobilize children systematically, although children still picked cotton in some regions. This shift did not represent a fundamental change in the government’s policy of using forced labor, however; it has simply increased the number of adults forced to work to compensate for reduced numbers of children in the fields. The government also extorts money directly from millions of people who are forced to make mandatory “contributions” to pay for labor, transportation, fines and other costs related to the harvest.
The government also forces farmers and public institutions such as schools, and medical clinics, to produce silk cocoons, which they must sell to the government at government-set prices. Silk cocoon production is labor and resource intensive and the government only pays a small advance to farmers at the beginning of the silk cocoon production season and then often pay nothing at all for the cocoons produced.
Thank you for your attention to these concerns.