When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
Imprisoned opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov has been targeted for harsh punitive measures for alleged violations of prison rules, including “speaking ill” of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his wife told EurasiaNet.org on July 27.
The timing of the punishment could be intended to deny parole eligibility to Kozlov, who is serving a seven-and-a-half year sentence on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011 and plotting to overthrow the state.
Aliya Turusbekova told EurasiaNet.org that prison authorities have characterized her husband as a “persistent offender” and transferred him “to a strict-regime cellblock” on July 27.
Kozlov is accused of “threatening the [work] team leader with physical reprisals and speaking ill of the country’s president,” she explained, citing information she received from his lawyer. The change in his status means greater restrictions on telephone calls, visits and parcels, Turusbekova said.
An official at the prison colony in Zarechniy in south-eastern Kazakhstan, where Kozlov is being held, declined to confirm or deny the change in status when contacted by EurasiaNet.org. “We do not give out any information by telephone,” the official said, before hanging up.
Kozlov briefly declared a hunger strike last week in protest at his treatment after he was placed in solitary confinement, the Open Dialog Foundation, a Poland-based human rights watchdog, said on July 21.
The watchdog added that Kozlov is suffering from health problems in jail, where he has been held in cramped conditions and forced to stand for long periods in temperatures approaching 50 degrees Celsius.
A nasty row has broken out between the United States and Kyrgyzstan over Washington’s decision this month to bestow the 2014 Human Rights Defender Award on jailed activist Azimjan Askarov.
In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer during the ethnic unrest in June that year.
Western governments and advocacy groups have regularly mounted staunch defenses of Askarov, saying that he was framed and later found guilty in a trial marred by irregularities.
The U.S. decision to grant Askarov with an award has enraged Kyrgyzstan, whose government reacted on July 17 with the announcement that it is to repeal a 1993 treaty between the two countries.
The statement said that the award “did not ahere to levels of cordial relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States and could damage government efforts to strengthen interethnic harmony.” The government also argued that U.S. actions were threatening peace and social stability in Kyrgyzstan.
As to Askarov’s guilt, Kyrgyzstan says they can be no doubt: “The decision of the court was taken on the basis of undeniable evidence, Askarov’s guilt has been proven in all instances. The Kyrgyz Republic stands for the supremacy of the law. The justice system is an independent branch of power.”
Uzbek officials brushed aside criticism during a two-day session of a UN human rights panel, claiming that the international community is exaggerating some alleged abuses, such as forced sterilization and religious persecution.
The Uzbekistani delegation faced tough questions on a wide array of issues during the UN Human Rights Committee hearings on July 8-9. Forced and child labor in the cotton sector “were discussed at length,” a summary of proceedings posted on the UN committee’s website stated. Other issues raised included torture, gay rights, forced sterilization and freedom of speech.
Allegations of abuses were highlighted in a report published during the run-up to the UN review by the International Partnership for Human Rights, a Brussels-based NGO that asserted “fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals continue to be routinely violated in Uzbekistan.”
Islam Jasimov, a department head at Uzbekistan’s Prosecutor General’s Office, presented the government’s report. He defended Tashkent’s record on child labor, pointing to “progress” that “had been received very positively” by the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Since 2012, Tashkent has prohibited the use of child labor in the cotton harvest, but rights campaigners say this has simply shifted the burden to adults. Roughly 4 million were pressed into service to help gather the harvest last fall, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Prominent human rights activist Elena Urlayeva was detained and abused by police while monitoring the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor in its springtime cotton planting effort on May 31, she has told EurasiaNet.org.
Officers subjected Urlayeva, 58, to physical and sexual abuse during her 11 hours in police custody and confiscated a camera on which she had recorded evidence of forced labor, she said by telephone from Tashkent on June 3.
“With some other activists, I was conducting monitoring of forced labor involving medics, teachers, and public-sector workers,” Urlayeva, who heads the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, explained.
The arrest took place when she was interviewing and photographing some doctors early in the morning on May 31 at a gathering point in the small town of Chinaz (60 kilometers southwest of Tashkent) from which the authorities were dispatching healthcare staff to the cotton fields.
When she refused to hand over her camera to officials, police took her to the precinct where “they started to use violence, they hit me on the head.”
Urlayeva accused officers of subjecting her to vaginal and rectal internal examinations (claiming they were searching for a hidden USB flash drive) and other sexually humiliating procedures, including photographing her nude. She was released without charge.
She has filed complaints with the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, and police authorities over her detention and treatment in custody.
Urlayeva said she believed her arrest “was an attempt to intimidate me … and to put a stop to my activity” monitoring the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.
The administration of strongman President Islam Karimov regularly comes under fire over the use of forced and child labor to reap the cash crop that fills up state coffers.
Two illiberal, Russian-style bills passing through Kyrgyzstan’s legislature are moving at such a snail’s pace that civil society activists are beginning to hope they are destined to fail.
A year has passed since conservative lawmakers introduced a bill targeting foreign-funded non-profits that is copied almost word-for-word from Russia’s notorious “foreign agents” law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2012. Like the Russian version, it would label non-profits that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents,” stigmatizing them in the eyes of many, and introduce numerous financial inspections and other burdens that critics say would deliberately hinder their work.
After parliament’s human rights committee endorsed the bill on May 19, it went to parliament for a first reading of three. There on May 27 it met some unexpected resistance from MPs who noted numerous inconsistencies and delayed a vote.
Daniyar Terbishaliev from the president’s Social Democratic Party claimed that provisions in the bill would require members of parliament to register as foreign agents because they receive support and trainings from foreign governments and organizations.
I met 25-year-old Akram Rustamov by chance when I was researching a story on the hardships Central Asian migrants face in Moscow, where millions work the most menial jobs.
He was facing serious charges at home in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek prosecutors accuse Akram of recruiting for the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan” (some regional experts believe the group is an invention of the Uzbek secret police), of calling for jihad at home, and of seeking militant training in Syria.
Uzbekistan has used trumped-up terrorism charges for years to jail critics and thousands of others, mostly peaceful Muslims, rights groups say. The regime of Islam Karimov uses the arrests and closed trials to perpetuate fear and legitimize its authoritarian rule both at home and abroad. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the latest excuse.
Activist Bahrom Hamroev at Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization calls the charges against Akram “fabricated and falsified.”
Akram asked me to film his story. He was desperate to prove his innocence.
Spending time with Uzbeks in Moscow, I quickly came to see that many live in fear of something far worse than the nationalist Russian gangs or shady employers I had set out to document.
When one of Akram’s friends – a bulky, confident guy I will call Ahmed – heard us discussing theories that the Karimov regime was behind bombings in Tashkent in 1999, he panicked. If anyone found out, he said, he would be locked up immediately. Ahmed and another friend facing charges similar to Akram’s are so afraid that they have stopped going to work, fearing abduction by Uzbek security services operating in Moscow.
Torture is “a defining feature” of Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system, routinely employed by the security forces not only to extract confessions but also to extort bribes, a new report by an international human rights watchdog finds.
Torture “is central to how the Uzbekistani authorities deal with dissent, combat security threats and maintain their grip on power,” says the study by Amnesty International, published on April 15.
The watchdog accuses the international community of turning a “blind eye” to “endemic” torture in order to protect its strategic interests with a “perceived geo-strategic ally.” (Tashkent has supported the “war on terror” and the US-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.)
“The attitude of Uzbekistan’s international partners to the routine use of torture appears at best ambivalent, and at worst silent to the point of complicity,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement. “As long as Uzbekistan uses torture-tainted evidence in court, it will remain a torture-tainted ally.”
The report, based on over 60 interviews with victims and relatives, details a range of gruesome torture methods, from beatings; asphyxiation; rape; and sexual assault to psychological torment; food, water, and sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; and electric shocks.
“They beat me everywhere, on my head, kidneys…When I lost consciousness they would throw water on me to wake me up and beat me again,” one victim recalled. “They beat me bloody. The first time I came to they must have suspended me from above because I couldn’t bend. The second time I came to they put me on a chair and put a cellophane bag on my head, suffocated me and beat me and I lost consciousness.”