Uzbek government subjects human rights defenders to body-cavity searches
Harassment is the latest in a spate of arrests and attacks of human rights defenders
Police in Uzbekistan arrested two human rights defenders and two local residents after they documented the cotton harvest on September 29 in Khorezm region. A police officer hit one of the residents, causing bleeding, and the police subjected the activists to body-cavity searches during a 14-hour detention.
The Cotton Campaign calls on the government of Uzbekistan to investigate and hold responsible the officers who carried out this degrading treatment and to ensure all citizens their rights to document and report human rights concerns without fear of reprisals. We also urge the World Bank, International Labour Organization, European Union and United States government to publicly denounce the Uzbek government’s violations of citizens’ rights to report human rights concerns.
The morning of September 29 Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan and fellow Alliance member Malokhat Eshankulova visited the accommodations provided to the high-school students forced to pick cotton in the Khazarasp district, Khorezm region. After taking photos and interviewing several students, police arrived in two patrol cars and arrested the two activists and two local residents who drove them, at approximately 8 AM. During the arrest, a police officer hit one of the local residents in the head, causing bleeding, and confiscated the activists’ phones, which they used to take photos.
At the station, the officers interrogated Ms. Urlaeva and Ms. Eshankulova. “They accused us, ‘You sell the Motherland!’” reported Ms. Eshankulova. After three hours, the police ordered a gynecologist, Dr. Mekhrinisso Shokirova, to conduct a body-cavity search of the two women. Ms. Eshankulova’s request to go to the hospital so that the search could be conducted in sanitary conditions and without the presence of policemen was refused. "I was also stripped naked and then searched with the help of gynecological instruments for a USB flash drive, and then with a gloved hand." reported Ms. Urlaeva. The police held the three activists in the Khazarasp police station for 14 hours and presented no charges.
The next day, September 30, the Uzbek government continued its intimidation campaign. Six men in two cars followed human rights defender Dmitry Tihonov from nearby his home in Angren all the way to Tashkent city, at least 100 kilometers (~60 miles). Walking on the street in Angren, Mr. Tihonov noticed the driver of a white car on surveillance. When he sat to eat in a teahouse, the driver and another man sat nearby, watching him. He took a bus to Tashkent and called a lawyer. Upon arrival at the lawyer’s office, Mr. Tihonov noticed that a second car had joined the first, and six people were outside, watching him. The lawyer approached the surveillance squad, and the men fled.
The surveillance of Mr. Tihonov bears striking resemblance to the government’s strategy to silence another human rights defender, Sergey Naumov. The police in Khorezm region detained Mr. Naumov for 15 days during the 2013 cotton harvest, when the International Labour Organization was monitoring in his region. This latest episode of surveillance of Mr. Tihonov occurred one week after the police arrested him and during the ILO’s effort this year to monitor forced labor during the cotton harvest.
The treatment of Ms. Urlaeva, Ms. Eshonkulova, and Mr. Tihonov this week fits a pattern of increased state arrests, harassment and intimidation of citizens attempting to document state-orchestrated forced labor in the cotton sector this year. Police have arrested and physically assaulted Ms. Urlaeva and Dmitry Tihonov multiple times in the last four months, in each case for monitoring forced labor in the cotton sector and promoting enforcement of laws that prohibit forced labor.
The Uzbek government is breaking the law; the citizens are demanding its enforcement. With its use of forced labor, the government is violating the international labor conventions it ratified and the Uzbek constitution. By arresting and harassing citizens for documenting human rights concerns, the government is violating their inalienable rights to freedom of expression and exchange of information.
At the same time the government arrests human rights defenders, it claims to be cooperating with the International Labour Organization on the eradication of forced labor and monitoring the application of labor conventions in project areas of the World Bank. The EU and U.S. government are supporting the ILO and World Bank programs. The Cotton Campaign urges the ILO, World Bank, EU and U.S. government to support the Uzbek human rights defenders and publicly reproach the Uzbek government when it harasses them.
 ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (Forced Labour Convention), adopted June 28, 1930, 39 U.N.T.S. 55, entered into force May 1, 1932, Article 2, stating “forced or compulsory labour shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” The ILO has further explained that “menace of penalty” includes various forms of coercion, such as physical violence, psychological coercion, and the loss of rights or privileges. [ILO, “Giving Globalization a Human Face,” 2012, ILC.101/III/1B, Para 308 http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_norm/@relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_174846.pdf, at paragraph 270.] ILO Convention No. 105 concerning Abolition of Forced Labour, adopted June 25, 1957, entered into force, January 17, 1959, at Article 1b, stating “Each Member of the International Labour Organisation which ratifies this Convention undertakes to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour…(b) as a method of mobilising and using labour for purposes of economic development.”