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.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on his historic days-long tour of the five countries of Central Asia with a small army of businessmen, banking officials and academics in tow.
This is the first time a Japanese leader has taken all the region’s countries, as well as Mongolia, in a single visit — a clear signal of intent to expand Tokyo’s presence in an area increasingly dominated by the rival economy of China.
Energy was at the top of Abe’s agenda, as suggested by the sealing of $18 billion in deals in Turkmenistan on October 23.
“We have signed documents on a range of projects in the chemical industry and for the construction of electrical generation plants for a total value of $18 billion,” Abe told reporters in Ashgabat.
Those projects include development on the huge Galkynysh natural gas field, building of power stations in the east of the country and polyethylene and propylene production plants, according to Turkmen officials.
The agreements will see Japanese companies like JGC Corporation, Mitsubishi, Chiyoda Corporation and Sojitz Corporation collective investing around $10 billion in Galkynysh, which is estimated to possibly hold 21.2 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Meanwhile, Sumimoto Corporation has received a $300 million order to complete gas-fired power plants with a 400 Megawatt capacity.
Large dollars figures were also flung about with abandon on October 25 in Uzbekistan, where the two countries signed off on $8.5 billion worth of deal.
According to Uzbekistan’s presidential website, Japanese investment will be primarily targeted at modernization of energy and transportation infrastructure, developing mineral resources, automobile construction, the oil, gas and chemical industries, and telecommunications.
Afghanistan's Uzbek leader and vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum has kicked off an offensive in the northern part of the country, just two weeks after traveling to Russia to arrange an increase in military aid.
On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed.
Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid.
After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.
Shifty U.S. envoys have been spotted lurking in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan digging for dirt on a competitor whose cheap crop could squeeze out America’s own exports.
At least that’s the yarn some media in Uzbekistan are spinning.
The U.S. Embassy has rubbished the claim.
In a report on October 16, website 12news.uz alleged that three suspicious elements were recently seen in the fields in Qashqadaryo Region, posing as journalists and officials from Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry.
“The ‘Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry staff and journalists’ turned out to be diplomats from the US Embassy in Tashkent, who had specially gone to the remote region to find some kind of problems which it would be possible to trumpet to the entire word as ‘the grossest cases of violations of human rights and restrictions on freedoms,’” the website wrote.
12news.uz speculated that the fact-finding team was motivated by a desire to thwart the rising sales of “comparatively cheap cotton from Uzbekistan” on world markets, which it said “in no way suits American farmers.”
The embassy was categorical in its denial.
“The allegations in this story are inaccurate, and we strongly disagree with the characterizations contained in the article,” spokeswoman Natella Svistunova told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail.
Pointing out that diplomats are free to travel under the Vienna Convention, Svistunova said embassy staff had traveled to various parts of Uzbekistan, carrying identification.
Svistunova said embassy staff “always correctly represent themselves, when asked.”
One of the embassy’s goals “is to better understand changing practices in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” Svistunova said.
Germany's base at Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany will close its air base in Uzbekistan by the end of the year, German officials have said, marking the end of the fourteen-year military presence in Central Asia.
Earlier this month, Germany's ambassador to Uzbekistan said that the base was only being used as backup and wasn't being used actively. The base, in Termez on the border with Afghanistan, had been used to supply German troops in Afghanistan. Germany's combat mission ended at the end of 2014 (though Germany still has 850 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO's now training-only mission).
"All particpants were aware from the start that our deployment to Termez wouldn't last longer than the military presence of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan," Ambassador Neithart Höfer-Wissing said then.
That news was hard to square with the fact that Uzbekistan had just raised the rent of the base last year to 35 million Euros a year, more than double what it had been charging, and was now trying to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros.
Abdul Rashid Dostum and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu meet in Moscow. (photo: Dostum's facebook page)
After the Taliban took over the city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, Russia has responded by taking a number of measures aimed at shoring up security in the region, strengthening both their own and partner armed forces.
Taliban forces seized Kunduz at the end of September, marking the first time the group has controlled a major city since being driven out of power in 2001. Afghan government forces retook the town days later, but the episode nevertheless highlighted the deteriorating security situation in the northern part of the country.
While the Taliban's goals still appear limited to Afghanistan's borders, their growing strength in the region has worried Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, which lie just over Afghanistan's northern border. And Russia, in spite of already being militarily engaged on multiple fronts, is trying to increase its engagement in Central Asia, as well.
First, Russia announced that it would bolster its military base in Tajikistan with a new air group and additional Mi-24P attack and Mi-8 MTV transport helicopters. (This announcement, incidentally, let us learn a little more about the murky situation around the Ayni air force base outside the capital of Dushanbe. Russia has reportedly been trying to gain control of the base, but this week the Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense issued a statement clarifying that they owned the base and were merely allowing Russia to use it.)
A human rights campaigner who alleges that she was tortured, gang-raped and forcibly sterilized while in custody in Uzbekistan has won a landmark United Nations ruling ordering Tashkent to investigate and prosecute those responsible for her ordeal.
The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) found there had been “multiple violations” of the rights of Mutabar Tadjibayeva, an activist who now lives in exile in Paris, a press release issued by three human rights groups on October 8 said.
These include her rights “to be free from torture and ill-treatment; to liberty and security; to a fair trial; to freedom of expression; and to be protected against discrimination on the grounds of sex and opinion,” the press release from Tadjibayeva’s own group, the Fiery Hearts Club, and two international groups supporting her, London-based Redress and Paris-based FIDH.
“I hope this decision adds to the struggle against impunity in Uzbekistan and serves to put an end to the many indignities committed against human rights defenders by its repressive regime,” Tadjibayeva said in response to the UNHRC ruling, issued on October 6.
Tadjibayeva alleged in a complaint filed with the UN in 2012 that she was tortured, gang-raped and forcibly sterilized (a practice the government denies but which has been documented by the BBC) while in custody in Uzbekistan, where she was jailed in 2005 shortly after a bout of fatal unrest in her hometown of Andijan.
Military transport aircraft lined up on the runway at Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Google Earth)
Germany's air base in Uzbekistan is now used only as a backup facility and is manned by a minimal crew, the German ambassador to Tashkent has said.
That news comes less than a year after Uzbekistan succeeded in raising the rent for the base to 35 million Euros a year, from a previous 10 to 15 million. Uzbekistan has operated the base, at Termez on the border with Afghanistan, since February 2002 as a rear logistics base for its military mission in Afghanistan.
"At the current time Termez serves primarily as a reserve airfield and isn't used actively," said Neithart Höfer-Wissing in an interview with news website ca-news.org. "All particpants were aware from the start that our deployment to Termez wouldn't last longer than the military presence of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan." Germany's combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December 2014.
While the base has in the past been manned by around 300 German troops, it now is maintained only by "the core team," Höfer-Wissing said.
News on the German base is rare, and the last time we heard about it was in April, when German media reported that Uzbekistan was trying to raise the rent again, to 72.5 million Euros annually. Höfer-Wissing was asked about the terms of the current agreement, and he declined to comment. So is Germany paying 35 million Euros, or more, for a base it doesn't use?
The United States diplomatic mission in Uzbekistan has been targeted in a firebomb attack in an unusual incident that will kindle chatter of a possible new terrorist menace in the repressive Central Asian nation.
Attacks on diplomatic missions in the heavily policed country are rare, but not unprecedented.
The US Embassy was targeted by bomb attacks on diplomatic and security targets in Tashkent in 2004 that killed two security guards at the Israeli Embassy.
This most recent attack occurred early September 28. The US mission said in a statement that “an unidentified assailant tossed two improvised incendiary devices onto embassy grounds,” one of which exploded.
Nobody was injured in the blast, but the embassy was closed as a precaution. The mission has now returned to business as usual, the statement said.
The embassy offered no possible motivation for the attack, which would have required the assailant to approach a robustly patrolled building surrounded by high razor-wire walls and guarded by U.S. Marines and local police.
The embassy said it was cooperating with authorities to investigate the attack and that it had identified “no specific threat information against Americans and/or American interests.”
Terrorist attacks are extremely rare in Uzbekistan, where the presence of police and security service officers is ubiquitous and stifling. This blast came three weeks after an explosive device detonated at Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in an incident that the authorities belatedly explained was a security exercise.
A bomb exploded in Tashkent, close to the city’s main bazaar, in one of the most crowded areas of Uzbekistan’s capital, RFE/RL has reported.
No-one was injured in the blast on September 4, which was confirmed to RFE/RL by Tashkent police.
It was caused by an explosive device left at a bus stop, said the police, who said they were searching for a suspect witnessed dumping it there before making a getaway.
Only much later in the day, Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that the explosion was a security exercise designed to test the capacity of the security forces to react to a terrorist attack.
The explosion took place near Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in the heart of the Old Town, which was the scene of a terrorist attack in 2004. That episode introduced suicide bombing to Central Asia and prefaced a spate of explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara that left at least 19 people dead.
The device blew up near the Tokhtaboy Mosque, one of Uzbekistan’s largest and best-known places of worship, where Obidkhon Qori Nazarov — a religious leader whose preaching displeased the authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov — was once the imam.
He fled Uzbekistan in 1998, and in 2012 was the subject of an assassination attempt in Sweden, where investigators have pointed the finger at the Uzbekistani authorities for the crime.