A leading campaigner in the effort to document Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest, which has been blighted by claims of rights abuses, has found his office destroyed by an unexplained fire.
Activists monitoring the harvest have faced an unprecedented wave of intimidation from authorities this year, despite mounting international scrutiny of the sector.
Dmitriy Tikhonov, who has reported cases of forced labor in cotton fields to international organizations, found his office in his home town, Angren, in charred ruins when he returned there on October 29, following an absence.
Files detailing the abuses he had documented were missing. Tikhonov did find a metal box container still intact in the ruins, but the hard drive that was stored inside had disappeared.
“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,” Umida Niyazova, director of the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, said in remarks quoted by the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group.
The fire appears to have taken place on October 20, which was the same day that Tikhonov was presented with criminal charges of disorderly conduct. The charges were brought after three members of a local neighborhood committee accused him of using foul language while asking them questions about cotton harvest mobilization.
Tikhonov was previously arrested in September while trying to document practices in the harvest. Uzbekistan has come under sustained fire over allegations about the widespread use of forced labor.
The campaigner told Human Rights Watch that at the police precinct an officer hit him with a stack of papers, yelling: “Cotton is our wealth and the achievement of the fatherland. You take photographs and videos. Who gave you the right to do this?”
“The authorities should immediately drop the retaliatory charges” against Tikhonov, said Matt Fischer-Daly 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.”
The government is under pressure to root adult forced labor out of the cotton fields, now that it has all but eradicated the use of child labor under intense international pressure. Authorities deny there is a systematic use of forced labor, but human rights campaigners say the government mobilizes around 1 million adults as forced laborers to pick the crop every year.
In a new development, Tashkent has this year invited the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the harvest for instances of adult forced labor. An ILO mission in 2013 was limited to checking for evidence of child labor.