Uzbekistan: Police Arrest Uzbek Human Rights Defenders for Documenting the Cotton Harvest
21 September 2015: The police in Uzbekistan arrested two human rights defenders, Dmitry Tihonov and Elena Urlaeva, for documenting the cotton harvest, this past weekend. Mr. Tihonov and Ms. Urlaeva have been reporting the Uzbek government’s widespread use of forced labor during this year’s cotton harvest. The Cotton Campaign demands the Uzbek government respect the rights of Ms. Urlaeva, Mr. Tihonov and all persons to report human rights concerns without fear of reprisal, and calls on the International Labour Organization, World Bank, European Union and U.S. government to publicly denounce the arrests.
The police of Angren city, Tashkent region arrested, beat and intimidated Dmitry Tihonov yesterday, September 20. Mr. Tihonov was interviewing people, taking photos and video recording the mobilization of cotton pickers outside the restaurant “Angren” on Sunday morning. He documented 20 buses taking teachers and other staff of kindergartens, primary schools and high schools and industrial workers to the cotton fields in Buka district. Buka is one of the districts where World Bank projects are underway. Police arrested him, took him to the Criminal Investigation unit of the police station, and told him a mahalla chairman reported to the police that he had been interviewing people and photographing the mobilization.
At the station, a higher-ranking officer- apparently the chief of criminal investigations- hit Mr. Tihonov in the face and head with a stack of papers and threatened further physical violence. The officer yelled, “Cotton is our wealth. It is the wealth of the nation! Who gave you the right to take the photos here?” An observing officer told Mr. Tihonov, “I did not see anything.” Then the police sent a first-aid medic, who told him, “I don’t see any injuries. Remove the t-shirt; turn around. You have nothing.” The mahalla chairman and representatives followed the medic. They called Mr. Tihonov “an enemy of the country” and ordered him to “pick cotton and help your country.” After forcing him to sign a statement that he had no claims against the police, the officers released Mr. Tihonov, five hours after his arrest.
The police of Kuyichirchik district of Tashkent region arrested and interrogated Elena Urlaeva along with her husband, son, and friend, the farmer Sherzod Kamchibekov, on Saturday, September 19. Mr. Kamchibekov had invited Ms. Urlaeva and her family to visit for the weekend and fish in the rivers surrounding his farm. Upon arrival, Ms. Urlaeva spoke with several women walking along the road, who reported that their mahalla had recruited them to pick cotton, and she took photos of the cotton fields. Around six ‘o clock in the evening, the police officer Muroda Namazbaeva arrested Ms. Urlaeva, her family and friend, and took them to the police station in Krasin village.
The police read what they described as a statement from a local farmer that Ms. Urlaeva had photographed his field without his knowledge. The officers proceeded to interrogate and search Ms. Urlaeva, her husband, her 11-year old son, and their friend Mr. Kamchibekov. They gave each a breathalyzer and claimed that Ms. Urlaeva had alcohol in her system, despite the fact that she had not consumed anything with alcohol. The police released Ms. Urlaeva and her family at 10 PM, but they kept Mr. Kamchibekov detained overnight. Before releasing him, the police accused Mr. Kamchibekov of espionage and banned him from contact with Ms. Urlaeva.
This is the fourth time that the Uzbek police have arrested Ms. Urlaeva in as many months, and the second time the police have arrested Mr. Tihonov in the last month, without ever presenting charges. The arrests are one of the tactics the Uzbek government is using to mask its use of forced labor this year. Another is the exploitation of the mahallas. While the Uzbek government claims the mahallas are supporting a public-awareness campaign about “voluntary labor,” in fact the mahallas are coercing people to pick cotton and intimidating citizens who attempt to document the harvest. Despite government intimidation, Ms. Urlaeva, Mr. Tihonov and many other Uzbek citizens are documenting continued government-orchestrated forced labor during the 2015 cotton harvest, in violation of national law and international conventions.
The Cotton Campaign demands the Uzbek government immediately permit activists, journalists and organizations to investigate and report on the practices in the cotton sector without fear of reprisals, and stop the use of coercion by officials, mahallas, or any citizen acting on behalf to force people to work in the cotton fields.