The following article was authored by Leah Sullivan, Cotton Crimes Project Officer at Anti-Slavery International, and was originally posted on the Anti-Slavery International blog.
“Cotton! You have to go and pick cotton and fulfil the quota. Is it clear!?”… …”What’s this? You delivered only 1,286 kilograms? Why is that? I’ll tear your head off!”
A government administrator, threatens employees for failing to pick enough cotton, secretly recorded on September 29, 2015 .
Autumn 2015 in Uzbekistan saw little change to previous years – the cotton harvest is ending, and with it the most active period in the world’s biggest state-orchestrated systems of forced labour.
From September until early November, it is estimated that over one million men, women, and children were ordered to work in the country’s cotton fields picking a total of 3.35 million tons of cotton. A majority of those forced to work are forced to leave their usual jobs as doctors or teachers, in order to fulfil quotas issued to public administration bodies by the central government.
People have to work often far from their homes, staying in makeshift accommodation and working long and exhausting hours in sometimes dangerous conditions. Failure to comply with orders can result in being fired, or expulsion, in the case of students. Other citizens, including pensioners, were threatened with having social benefits or pensions withheld.
As in previous years, Anti-Slavery’s partners the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) monitored the 2015 cotton production cycle from beginning to end. Those participating in the monitoring reported persecution by the government: harassment, detention and threats aimed at suppressing citizens’ attempts to document the cotton harvest.
This year, a number of particularly cruel abuses of human rights activists were noted. These included the arrests, 18-hour interrogation, beatings and forced body cavity searches of two women activists, Elena Urlaevaand Malokhat Eshankulova.
A human rights defender, Dmitry Tihonov has also had his office burned down in October and property stolen. The fire destroyed Tihonov’s two computers, a laptop, two hard drives, cameras and files - all including evidence of forced labour during this year’s cotton harvest. The suspected arson came on top of trumped up charges of disorderly conduct brought against Tihonov last month.
Activists and journalists have noted this year the lengths the Government has gone to mask the use of forced labour. Public-sector workers were under strict instruction to inform international observers that they work in the fields voluntarily. Universities and high schools required students to write statements that they voluntarily participate in the cotton harvest, and hospitals have required the same of nurses.
Yet the evidence collected by UGF’s monitors, including official documents, confirms the use of forced labour by the Uzbek government. Even though it had committed to end forced and child labour, the evidence shows that it is falling foul not only of these commitments, but also of its obligations not to perpetrate basic human rights abuses against its own people.
We are now working together with our partners from the Cotton Campaign coalition to compile evidence from this year’s harvest. The report will be published in the coming weeks, along with video testimony of people forced to work in the harvest this year.
In the coming year the international community, including the European Union, International Labour Organisation and the World Bank will make critical decisions about the future prospects for the trade in Uzbek cotton. It is vital that in making those decisions the voices of Uzbek people forced to pick cotton and those facing abuse and harassment in attempting to report on what’s happening on the ground are heard.
Follow Leah on Twitter: @sullivlj
Today 38 trade unions, business associations, companies, investors and human rights organizations, together as the Cotton Campaign coalition, urged the World Bank to suspend disbursements to the government of Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government ends the use of forced labor in all World Bank project-affected areas, in the following letter:
Statement by the Alliance for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, 9 November 2015:
Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan members Elena Urlaeva and Malokhat Eshonkulova call on the police of Uzbekistan to cease unlawful arrests of journalists and human rights defenders.
During the springtime cotton field weeding season and through the end of the autumn cotton harvest , police arrested Ms. Urlaeva and Ms. Eshonkulova multiple times for documenting state-led forced labor. Police arrested the human rights defenders in Khorezm, Syrdarya and Tashkent regions, confiscated the memory sticks of their phones and cameras, and subjected the women to body-cavity searches in the police station.
Human rights activists in Uzbekistan call on the police to stop the unlawful arrests and to publicly register arrests made.
By Malokhat Eshonkulova, journalist, member of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and forced labor monitor for the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights:
On October 30, the police confiscated six cows and 32 sheep from Ulugbek Botirov, a resident of the mahalla Huja Ilgor in the Yakkabag district of Kashkadarya region Uzbekistan.
The livestock roamed the Amir Timur farm freely, unaware that the farmer had not delivered the state-assigned quota for cotton production. To penalize the farmer, the district prosecutor ordered the police to take livestock from farmers who had not fulfilled their "white gold" quotas.
Mr. Botirov's wife Manzura Turobova provided the following account in an interview:
"We have two little children. My husband Ulugbek Botirov is responsible for irrigation and shepherding the herd, six cows and 32 sheep, for the farmer Gayrat. The cows and five of the sheep belong to us. On October 30 around 6 in the evening my husband led the herd from the pasture to the village, and two police officers took the whole herd. It turns out that Gayrat had not fulfilled the plan for cotton production this year, and the district prosecutor ordered the police to take livestock from farmers who failed to comply with the plan."
"The police did not even ask who owned the cows and sheep. I don't have any written document confirming the confiscation. They did not give us any sort of paper, and just took them away. My husband went to the district prosecutor's office everyday for four days, but the prosecutor did not let him in. No one wanted to listen to him. We even tried to accompany him, my 80-year old mother-in-law and I. Still useless."
"So I stood in front of the prosecutor's car, and when he left the office I told him, 'Either you kill me or you give me back my cattle. My mother-in-law bought 5 of the sheep with her pension. Six sheep will belong to my children. If you won't give them back to me, you can just crush me with your car!' The prosecutor replied that the cows and sheep had been sold, and that I can buy cows from a butcher in Shakhrisabz, Bayuk. The prosecutor would pay the butcher. We found him, and he gave us cows."
"But we still have lost 32 sheep that belonged to us and our neighbors. The neighbors are demanding the return of their sheep. The prosecutor said that we should be grateful for the return of the cows and that the sheep would not be returned. The prosecutor has ruined my family! What shall we do now?"
The International Trade Union Confederation sent the following letter to the President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov:
The World Bank is developing its strategy for Uzbekistan for the period 2016-2020, in a document called the Country Partnership Framework. Today the Cotton Campaign submitted the following information and recommendations, urging the Bank to to account for legal violations by the Uzbek government and prioritize systemic reform and political commitment:
Malokhat Eshonkulova is an independent journalist and human rights advocate in Uzbekistan. She has documented state-led forced labor in the cotton sector, despite attempts by the government to silence her. Most recently, on September 29, Police arrested Ms. Eshankulova while they were interviewing students sent to harvest cotton. During a 14-hour detention, the police ordered a body-cavity search presented no charges. On October 30, Ms. Eshonkulova sent the following letter to the President of Uzbekistan:
Dear Mr. President,
I appeal to you not as a journalist and human rights activist, but as a woman, as a mother of two daughters.
On November 10th of this year, there was to be held the wedding of my oldest daughter in the wedding location "Dilorom" in Tashkent. Everything was prepared for the wedding party, the mortgage was paid, the invitations distributed.
On October 30th, law enforcement officers came to the owner of the venue and forbid to hold the wedding. The owner said that if the wedding took place, all guests would be kicked out on the street, the venue would be closed, they would conduct an audit and let it turn out in such way that his business would have to close forever.
In response to these threats, the owner of the venue forbid the groom's relatives to rent the hall, returned the mortgage and advised then to not even look for other wedding locations saying: "It’s all the same, no one dares to hold your wedding."
Dear Mr. Islam Karimov and Mr. Shavkat Miramanovich!
My family has always lived and lives in accordance with the requirements of the Uzbek Constitution and laws. My daughter is still young, she never committed any crime.
Who are these people that threatened the owner of the location? Who are they to brazenly interfere with the lives of respectable citizens, ruining their plans and future?
I am a free citizen of Uzbekistan. If I were a criminal I would sit in prison.
My only fault is that I speak and write the truth, I expose the criminal wrongdoings of corrupt officials.
My fault is that I'm not afraid to confront the evil.
In the Stalin era, children were held accountable for the actions of their parents. Did we go back to that time? Who gave the law enforcement agencies the right to interfere with my daughter’s fortune? Why and for which purpose? What was her fault?
Is it only the fact that she is the daughter of Malokhat Eshonkulova?
Then please explain to me, what is my fault?
For which purpose are the law enforcement officers trying to ruin my daughter’s wedding? Maybe they decided to take revenge on me for writing true articles? And what do they want to achieve? That I stop to write and speak out the truth?
In fact, the story repeated itself. Our children got engaged 2 years ago. The wedding was to be held in October 2013. Then, police officers threatened the relatives of the groom. They presented me to them as an enemy of the Uzbek people. They reached such cynicism that they demanded from the groom's relatives to insist that my daughter should end the relationship with me in case the marriage was registered.
I do not know what these people want from me, persecuting my family.
I'm not a criminal; on the contrary, with my hard work I help to implement and maintain the rule of law, doing my small contribution to the creation of a democratic society in our country.
With this letter, I want to say that if there are any more unpleasant events at my daughter's wedding, the guilty can only be the law enforcement officials of Uzbekistan.
Dear Islam Karimov!
I ask you to ensure legitimacy. I ask to identify the law enforcement officials that threatened my family, wanting to interfere with my daughter’s wedding. I ask to hold them accountable.
Also, I ask to stop persecuting me for my journalistic activities.
Malokhat Eshonkulova, October 30, 2015