Uzbekistan: Human Rights Defender’s House Burned Down as Government Silences Him with Charges
(October 29, 2015): Today, human rights defender Dmitry Tihonov returned to his home to find the office in his home burned down, the door sealed, and property stolen from rooms untouched by the fire. Mr. Tihonov had been staying with friends since the police in Angren brought disorderly conduct charges against him on October 20. The trumped up charges, which carry a fine or up to 15 days in detention, and fire, which has all signs of intentionality, have forced Mr. Tihonov to cease human rights monitoring during the last weeks of the 2015 cotton harvest, during which the Uzbek government has once again used systematic forced labor on a mass scale.
“The fire is a horrific escalation of the intimidation campaign against Dmitry and all Uzbek human rights defenders throughout 2015, aimed at preventing them from reporting on forced labor in the cotton sector,” said Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, which monitors labor practices. The government must conduct a transparent investigation, and prosecute those responsible for the fire and theft of his property, and the international community must publicly support Dmitry and his fellow human rights defenders.”
Mr. Tihonov, a prominent human rights defender and journalist based in Angren, approximately 60 miles from the capital Tashkent, has documented forced labor in the cotton sector for the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and the Cotton Campaign. The fire consumed Mr. Tihonov’s home office, collapsing the roof and destroying his financial savings, two computers, a laptop, two hard drives, a scanner/printer, two cameras, and audio-video recorder, his files— including evidence of forced labor during this year’s cotton harvest, and his legal library. Mr. Tihonov dug out from the ruins a metal box and found it intact but the hard drive stored in it gone. His box of 100 pamphlets that explain national laws prohibiting forced labor was missing from a room untouched by the fire. The police gave a neighbor a copy of an inventory of property not destroyed by the fire; it did not include the pamphlets.
When Mr. Tihonov returned to his home to assess the damage, a neighborhood watchman alerted the fire department. The firemen arrived and asked Mr. Tihonov to go to the police. They informed him that the fire occurred October 20, the same day the Angren police informed him of the disorderly conduct charges, and that neighbors had given statements to the police. Yet no one notified Tihonov’s lawyer, Ms. Polina Braunberg, who had met with the Angren police twice since they brought the charges.
Police told Ms. Braunberg that the charges against Mr. Tihonov stem from a complaint filed by three mahalla (neighborhood council) members in Angren who claimed that Mr. Tihonov used obscene language with them while asking them about sending people to the cotton harvest. Mr. Tihonov told the Cotton Campaign that the three had approached him on September 20 while he was observing the mobilization of teachers and other workers to the cotton fields in Buka, a district outside of Angren, where World Bank projects are underway. He said they asked him what he was doing and told him that he should, “pick cotton instead of taking photographs!” Mr. Tihonov said he explained that he was observing the harvest, but did not argue with them. Shortly thereafter, the police detained Mr. Tihonov and beat him.
“The authorities should immediately drop the retaliatory charges against Dmitry Tihonov,” said Matt Fischer-Daly on behalf of the Cotton Campaign. “We call on the Uzbek government to stop its use of forced labor and to permit activists, journalists and independent monitors to investigate and report human rights concerns without fear of reprisals.”
Mr. Tihonov told the Cotton Campaign that he is concerned that the police trying to stop him from monitoring the cotton harvest and that, if detained, he could face ill-treatment or other pressure to intimidate him into giving up his human rights work. As recently as July 2015 the UN Human Rights Committee reported concerns about torture, ill-treatment and forced confessions used in the Uzbek criminal justice system, particularly against human rights defenders.
Throughout the 2015 cotton harvest, Tihonov has regularly met with and provided evidence of forced labor to representatives of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Bank. The Uzbek government has signed loan agreements with the World Bank, totaling more than $500 million, in which it agreed to the suspension of finance if there is child or forced labor in the project areas.
“It’s time for the World Bank to stand behind its agreements and call on the government to allow independent monitors to work unimpeded,” said Shin Young Chung, Advocates for Public Interest Law. “These reprisals only expose the Uzbek government’s lack of sincerity in its commitments to ensure no forced labor occurs in World Bank project areas, to cooperate with the ILO to monitor those project areas, and to eradicate forced labor in the cotton sector.”
The 2015 cotton season has seen an increase in police harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention, and ill-treatment of monitors. In May, men attacked Tihonov on the streets of Tashkent, where police are omnipresent. In September, police arrested him twice, and a surveillance squad of six men followed him from Angren to Tashkent. Police have arrested fellow human rights defender Elena Urlaeva four times, twice subjected her to body-cavity searches, and arrested and conducted a body cavity search of Malohat Eshankulova in September.
“These human rights monitors are exposing the Uzbek government’s violations of international covenants and national law that prohibit forced labor,” said Brian Finnegan, Global Worker Rights coordinator at the AFL-CIO. “The ILO, World Bank, European Union and its member states and the U.S. government should urgently and publicly denounce the harassment of Mr. Tihonov and pressure the Uzbek government to permit reporting on the cotton sector without fear of reprisals”