International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
An Afghan airline is using passenger flights to deliver “bulk quantities of opium” to Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, according to U.S. officials cited in a January 24 Wall Street Journal report.
The Pentagon, which has blacklisted Kam Air from receiving military contracts, opened an investigation when the airline bid on a contract to service the U.S.-led coalition. "An organization such as Kam Air exposes itself when it bids on a U.S. contract," U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Richard Longo, the commander of Task Force 2010, a coalition anticorruption unit, told the Wall Street Journal. "They are subject to scrutiny."
Kam Air, which is in talks to merge with state-run Ariana Afghan Airlines, denies the charges. The private airline operates four weekly flights between Kabul and Dushanbe.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says approximately 30 percent of Afghan narcotics, including 90 tons of heroin, exit Afghanistan through Central Asia each year, mostly through Tajikistan. Tajik officials either lack the capacity to interdict the narcotics, or are complicit in the trade, according to Western officials in Dushanbe.
Those Western officials suspect the bulk of the onward trafficking begins at Tajikistan’s airports, usually on flights to Russia. The inbound smuggling, according to the Wall Street Journal report, is apparently happening right under the nose of airport officials, too.
Kam Air operates a fleet of some 16 planes, including Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft and Antonov cargo planes. The task force believes that domestic passenger routes have been used to ferry opium around the country, according to a U.S. official in Kabul. But the investigation is focused on Central Asia, the official said. "Kam Air is flying out bulk quantities of opium," the official said.
Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
Authorities in Tajikistan have ordered Internet service providers, again, to block access to Facebook, local news agencies report. The blocking orders (which this time also target the local service of Radio Liberty) have become so familiar in the past year that there’s little new to say. So let’s look at how the man in charge of Internet access has explained his thinking in recent months.
Last March, the head of the communications service, Beg Zukhurov, after denying any order to block Facebook, said his office had actually blocked the site for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state communications service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing [President Emomali] Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
In November, Zukhurov again flipped the switch and memorably called Facebook a “hotbed of slander” when he sought a meeting with the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
"Does Facebook have an owner? Can he come to Tajikistan? I'd meet him during visiting hours. If he does not have time, I'd talk to his assistants,” the BBC’s Russian service quoted Zukhurov as saying. (Zukhurov's visiting hours are Saturday's from 10am to noon.)
The chief of Tajikistan’s communications agency says he has blocked Facebook access in the country because Internet users were begging him to shut that “hotbed of libel.” And he wants a few words with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Earlier Beg Zukhurov denied any blockade, saying he could log onto Facebook just fine and that perhaps some Internet providers were having technical problems. But on November 27 he admitted he gave the order: "Public figures have talked to me about this several times. I've had a lot of calls from outraged Tajik residents who ask me to shut down Facebook," RIA Novosti quotes Zukhurov as saying.
He added that a group of volunteer Internet monitors had described numerous violations (of what, it’s unclear). "Government heads are being insulted on the site and these statements are being made by fake users. Some people are clearly getting paid good money for this," RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.
In August, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote to Zukhurov of its “profound concern” that he was creating a group of Internet monitors accountable to him and not the courts. “Such a system of control could lead to the wholesale blocking of online publications and websites. While we agree defamation should be penalized, it should be dealt with by the courts, where defendants can put their case and have the right of appeal,” RSF wrote.
The defendant in this case appears to be the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
The Dushanbe mayor’s office is suing Tajikistan’s leading opposition figure for criticizing the city’s environmental record, Asia-Plus reports. The suit, demanding an apology, was filed early last week. According to a top environmental official, back in October Muhiddin Kabiri of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), who is a member of the national legislature, criticized city officials during a parliamentary meeting on pollution.
"Nobody pays attention to the felling of trees in the capital, which has become systematic," he said during the session. "Reinforced concrete buildings have replaced tree-lined walkways and small parks in Dushanbe, which is causing problems for the city's ecosystem."
Rapid development in central Dushanbe has indeed meant vast destruction, with historic buildings and established parks ploughed under to make space for shiny new palaces and empty office buildings. The city's main central park, for example, was, until a few years ago, a woodland haven in the center of town, with majestic oaks and conifers providing welcome shade on a hot summer’s day. In 2007 and 2008, most of the trees were felled, allowing drivers on Rudaki Avenue to see the president’s bloated new meeting complex, the Palace of the Nation.
Kabiri is not alone in criticizing the mayor’s office for such developments. But he and his party regularly suffer attacks that appear more political than substantive. The pace is likely to pick up as presidential elections approach next year. President Emomali Rakhmon is expected to run for yet another 7-year term. He’s been in power since 1992.
Authorities in Tajikistan appear to have lifted their weeklong ban on the social networking site Facebook.
Users in Dushanbe say they have been able to access the site again on March 10. The Asia-Plus news agency reports that the government Communications Service verbally told Internet service providers (ISPs) they could restore access to the site late on March 9. Several news websites remain inaccessible.
Earlier in the week, Asia-Plus published a letter from the head of the Communications Service, Beg Zukhurov, ordering the blockage. Zukhurov denied the site was blocked, saying it was down for “prophylactic maintenance” and that access would be restored. But few believed him because he used the occasion to lash out at journalists who defame “the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities,” and said authors of such content should be made “answerable.”
The kerfuffle over Facebook began late on March 2 when, apparently reacting to an article severely criticizing Tajikistan’s long-serving president, Emomali Rakhmon, authorities blocked the site where it originally appeared, Zvezda.ru, and three others, along with Facebook. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the “worrying development” and urged Dushanbe to restore access to the sites. “Despite occasional blocking of certain websites in Tajikistan, Internet has remained largely free,” the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, said.
Officials in Tajikistan are heaping new confusion onto the ongoing shutdown of Facebook. While users triumphantly explain to each other how to access the site through proxy servers, a group close to President Emomali Rakhmon has suggested that Tajikistan should build its own social network to promote “the ideals and national values of the Tajik people.”
The state agency in charge of IT and telecommunications has claimed the March 2-3 block – condemned by a Tajik Internet lobby and US-based Freedom House – is “temporary” and for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state Communications Service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
Zukhurov promised to restore the Facebook connection “soon.” (Meanwhile, what seems to be a copy of his order is circulating on – you guessed it – Facebook.)
Authorities in Tajikistan have blocked access to Facebook and several Russian-language news websites, apparently trying to stem mounting online criticism of long-serving President Emomali Rakhmon. Since the uprisings across the Arab world in the past year, which authorities throughout Central Asia blame on social networks such as Facebook, the former Soviet region's autocrats have stepped up Internet restrictions, while citizens increasingly turn to social networks to discuss their frustrations.
The latest crackdown reportedly began after a website called Zvezda.ru published a withering critique of Rakhmon entitled “Tajikistan on the Eve of Revolution,” which argued the president is “incompetent” and presides over a corrupt regime where his family has gained control over every state asset down to the last telephone pole. The article predicts mass unrest. “Rakhmon’s regime has lead the country to complete devastation, ruin and terrible poverty,” wrote Sergey Strokan, a staffer with the heavyweight Russian daily Kommersant.
What is a military helicopter from Tajikistan doing in southern Afghanistan?
That question has been prompted by conflicting reports about a February 11 crash that killed four Tajik air force officers, including the son of the deputy defense minister, in Zabul Province.
Tajik state media report the Soviet-era MI-8 helicopter, which belongs to the country’s Defense Ministry, had been ferrying about supplies since May 2011 on behalf of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Khovar, the state news agency, said on February 13 that the reasons for the crash are unknown, but that bad weather was likely to blame. A source in Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry told the Asia-Plus news agency that the helicopter crew was delivering “humanitarian cargo to remote mountain villages in Afghanistan.”
But the Associated Press reports that the helicopter was delivering food to US troops on behalf of Supreme Group, a private contractor. Supreme, which supplies military bases around Afghanistan and operates a duty-free food and liquor store for expatriates in Kabul, told the AP that the helicopter was operated by a company called Central Asian Aviation Services. That company’s website is under construction, but lists a phone number in the UAE.