Human rights activist Umida Niyazova spoke to Fergana News about a recent trip to her homeland and her impression of new realities after many years in exile.

The course towards greater openness and liberalization in Uzbekistan following the change of power in 2016 presented political emigrants with the possibility of returning to their homeland, at least for a short time. Some of them took the risk and then, with pleasant surprise, reported how they could cross of the border smoothly, easily register at their place of accommodation, and the lack of attention paid to them by the security forces, at least not that they noticed. Their stories were optimistic and the number of dissidents and political refugees visiting Uzbekistan slowly began to grow.

In early December, human rights activist Umida Niyazova, who emigrated from Uzbekistan in 2008, visited Tashkent. Her departure was preceded by a four-month stay in a Tashkent pre-trial detention center and eight months of probation.

In December 2006, Niyazova was detained upon arrival from Bishkek at Tashkent airport where her laptop was searched by officials. At the time, she was a freelance consultant with the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the laptop contained materials about the Andijan events. An expert from the Center for Monitoring in the Sphere of Mass Communications of the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information was urgently summoned and determined that the laptop contained materials calling for the overthrow of the constitutional system of Uzbekistan, as well as materials of a religious-extremist nature. Umida Niyazova was interrogated for nine hours. She was released without her confiscated laptop and passport and told not to leave Uzbekistan and to cooperate with the investigation.

Unnerved by these events, Niyazova decided to go into hiding in Kyrgyzstan. However, following advice from her lawyer who had been told by the authorities that the investigation against her had been closed and that she was no longer in danger, she decided to return. She was subsequently detained near the border with Kyrgyzstan on January 22 after another criminal case had been opened against her on January 6.

Niyazova was charged under three articles of the criminal code of Uzbekistan: smuggling, illegal border crossing and distribution of materials containing threats to security and public order. The trial was closed and lasted only two days and Niyazova was sentenced to seven years in prison. Thanks to the intervention and efforts of the international community and colleagues, she was released four months later.

“During the probationary period, I had to go to the authorities once a month, stand in a queue and submit a report about my activities during the last month and whether I had committed any crimes. It was very difficult and humiliating. These were depressing times when repression against human rights defenders and activists was at its severest. I had no choice but to leave this country. And I left,” says Umida Niyazova in an interview with Fergana News.

Niyazova flew to Germany with her three-year-old son. For the first year she worked in the Berlin office of HRW and then founded the NGO “Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights” (now “Uzbek Forum for Human Rights”). The main goal of the organization was to combat child and forced labor in the cotton sector. The activities of the Forum began with a call to boycott Uzbek cotton which appeared to be the only way to force the Uzbek authorities to abandon the forced labor of children and adults. There followed eleven years of monitoring child and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector and the publication of dozens of reports and articles.

Niyazova never lost touch with her relatives and friends back home and her mother came to Berlin every three years.

“Usually human rights activists do not talk about this, but this human part is always there: you want to hug your parents, brothers, sisters and go to Uzbekistan, not because the regime has changed there, but because you want to go to your house and see your relatives”, explains Niyazova.

When did you get the feeling that it is safe to return?

About two years ago, I met with the Deputy Minister of Labor of Uzbekistan, Erkin Mukhitdinov, in Geneva. He was the first Uzbek official with whom I could speak calmly about our work on forced labor in the cotton sector. For me, this was a kind of indicator of change in the atmosphere.  I have a strong point of reference – after all the problems I faced in Uzbekistan and then suddenly being able to have a reasoned conversation with an Uzbek official and explain why you do your work, what problems you see, and then get a normal reaction and offers of cooperation.

Since then, we have begun to build our relationships with some Uzbek officials associated with our work. And two years later, at the invitation of the Association of Cotton Textile Clusters of Uzbekistan, I and my colleagues from the Cotton Campaign were able to come to Uzbekistan to meet with more officials and industry representatives and talk about further reforming the cotton sector.

Were you personally invited or did you have to seek inclusion in the list of members of the delegation?

My colleagues from the Cotton Campaign asked me to accompany them. We waited a month for a response from the Uzbek side. As I was told, there were some “pitfalls”. But then I received confirmation that I could go to the Uzbek Embassy in Berlin and get a visa.

So you arrived not as a citizen of Uzbekistan, but as a citizen of Germany?

I was stripped of my Uzbek citizenship in 2014, although I only found out about it in 2017. You may know that there was a decree by President Islam Karimov which deprived several thousand activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and dissidents of their citizenship in one fell swoop. That included me. We have not seen the decree itself, but they say the list is very long. For some time, I had the status of a stateless person but then I received German citizenship.

And so you flew to Tashkent and set foot on Uzbek soil after a long absence. What were your first impressions?

Initially, I was still a little worried about how I would get through passport control, whether they would detain me and send me back on the same plane. But when I passed through immigration and customs without any interventions or questions, I breathed a sigh of relief.

I cannot say that I have any strong impressions of Tashkent because the city itself seemed a little foreign to me. However, when I arrived home my numerous nieces whom I had not seen in 13 years came to welcome me. Then little girls, they are now all married women, each with children of their own. It surprised me how many details they remembered from the past. For example, they said, “When I finished school, you took me to the hairdresser and I got such a beautiful haircut, I remember.” I was surrounded by such an ocean of love. I felt it physically, a feeling that I had not experienced for a long time – the love of loved ones, relatives. All this of course caused a great flood of emotions.

How do you think the people of Uzbekistan have changed compared to what it was like before?

Fundamentally not much has changed. But unfortunately, I didn’t have more time to travel and look around. We had meeting after meeting so I cannot say that I have a complete picture. But I did notice that there is less fear. Activists, bloggers, and farmers from different regions came to meet with me to talk about their problems. This is something that did not happen before.

How did they know about your arrival? Did you notify them yourself or did the local authorities tell them that international human rights defenders were coming?

I wrote to some of them, asking to meet personally. With others I discussed the possibility of communicating on social networks and instant messengers.

But you know, it is of course very good that I was able to go to Uzbekistan and to see that people have less fear. Nonetheless, I still have a sense of insecurity about all these changes. Even now, after positive and successful meetings with officials, I am not sure that I can safely go there again or that this door will not close. There is no confidence that Uzbekistan will continue to open up, that there will be no repressions, and that freedom of speech will develop. It seems to me that Uzbekistan is still at a crossroads, undecided which way to go. There is no guarantee that the president will choose the path of liberalization.

Why did you get this feeling? Did you get the impression of the fragility of the reforms from your interactions with officials? Or does it seem that all the changes are imposed from above and that people on the ground are not ready for them and so the situation can turn around at any moment?

I had a feeling of surrealism all the time. It seemed that this was not actually happening, that it was all very strange. And I have a feeling of insecurity because … For example, two people who wanted to meet with me said that officials tried to prevent them from doing so. One farmer received a call from the Department of Internal Affairs for Combating Extremism and Terrorism and demanded that he did not go to Tashkent to meet with us. Another activist colleague of ours received a call from the SNB (the State Security Service) and was also told not to go. It was like a very vivid reminder that it is too early to rejoice. There are still certain structures, certain people in control who want everything to go back to the way it was.

The officials we met were mostly technocrats, people who have studied at Western universities. They are reasoned and not afraid to speak their minds. They are very progressive and liberal. This is also an indicator of the new era. But I think that there are far fewer progressive people like them in the country’s leadership than the cadres of the old school.

Another very important factor is democratic institutions. In reality they still do not exist. The very essence of an authoritarian regime remains. It is not yet clear whether the president is ready to share power with parliament, independent courts, and civil society. These main elements of a democratic society in Uzbekistan are completely absent. Everything flows to one person, to one less brutal president, which is actually very inefficient.

Did you only visit Tashkent?

I visited Tashkent and Tashkent region. We had many meetings with departments that are related to our work: the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Uztekstilprom, the Association of Cotton and Textile Clusters, and the Uzipaksanoat Association, the silk industry association. Silk is a sector we would also like to turn our attention to because the cultivation of silkworm cocoons has been compulsory for farmers for many years. In 2015, we published a comprehensive report on this issue, “Silk Loop for Uzbek Farmers“. Today this industry is also changing and being privatized and we intend to continue working on it.

What made a special impression on you?

In the Kuyichirchik district of the Tashkent region, I visited a cotton-textile cluster which uses a drip irrigation system, something that has never been used in Uzbekistan. Water scarcity is a huge problem, but it is not usually prioritized. The cluster managers brought in an expert from Israel, and now, according to management, they are saving water by 50%. We saw ourselves how the whole business is managed. It is very impressive and positive. This is a very important development.

What can you say about the cotton-textile clusters themselves, about how they are created in Uzbekistan? Economists argue that farms and enterprises should unite into clusters on their own, voluntarily, and not on orders from above.

There are two types of clusters. The first is when textile enterprises themselves use land from the state, sow the cotton they need, process it into yarn and thread, and manufacture clothes which they sell themselves. It is a closed production cycle. All participants in the process, including farmers or smallholder farmers who grow cotton, are employees of the cluster and are under its control.

As we were told, there are not many such clusters in Uzbekistan and they produce only about 15-18% of the total cotton harvested per year. The rest of the clusters are part of a rather strange system in which farms are essentially attached to textile enterprises and are obliged to grow cotton for them, according to the amount demanded by the enterprise and local hokimiyats (administrations of districts, cities and regions). This is a disease of the old system, when local hokimiyats determined how much cotton or grain farmers had to grow and on how much land. Based on the yield of the land, they set a plan for how much the farmers should grow. The farmer had practically no choice. It didn’t matter whether he wanted to grow the cotton or not, he had to fulfill the order.

Another problem is pricing. Clusters or the state, represented by the Ministry of Agriculture, determine the minimum purchase prices for farmers who are not involved in the pricing process. They may not be happy with these purchase prices, but they have no say.

Now, unlike in previous years, these problems can be discussed so that solutions can be found. I have very good impressions from my conversation with the Minister of Agriculture, Jamshid Khodjayev, and other officials. I proposed organizing a conference to bring together textile enterprises and farmers to the same table so that they themselves as experts can discuss their problems with decision makers directly. It seems to me that this is lacking. If we manage to hold such an event, it would be very useful for everyone. The most positive thing that I would like to note is that it is now possible to not only monitor and report on human rights violations, but also to speak directly with leaders and decision makers and discuss the issues to identify solutions.

Nonetheless, I cannot say that it is the same in other spheres, particularly relating to corruption, torture, judicial reform and so on. I can only talk about the areas in which we are working and here I can see progressive change.

Did you come with the Cotton Campaign to summarize the results of the 2021 cotton harvest?

Basically, yes – to report on the results of our monitoring and discuss with the authorities further policy in reforming the agricultural sector. Because the forced labor of cotton pickers is not the only problem in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector. There is also the issue of unequal relations between farmers and clusters and the problem of confiscation of farmland. We discussed all these issues and, I hope, will continue to discuss them. And I also hope the doors don’t close. If we continue to engage in dialogue, it will only benefit people.

This year, there was practically no case of mass forced labor. So the problem has been resolved?

Yes, we can say with full confidence that the massive systematic forced labor in Uzbekistan is over. There were no such cases this year. I asked almost all human rights defenders I know of and all of them confirmed that they found no evidence of coercion during their monitoring activities.

How was the state able to collect the same amount of cotton as, say, in 2011, without using mass forced labor?

As it turns out, it is possible.

In social networks, I have come across posts and comments which are critical of political exiles and critics returning to Uzbekistan. They believe that in exchange for the opportunity to visit their homeland, they could be asked to be more loyal to the government, to stop criticizing it. How would you answer them?

Critics of the regime have the same right to come to Uzbekistan, to see their relatives and friends, as well as non-critics. They also have families, they have loved ones. I often say: I did not take an oath that I would make an eternal sacrifice. I went to Uzbekistan because I wanted to see my country, my relatives and friends. This is one aspect.

As for the other, that critics who travel to Uzbekistan will stop being critical, I can only speak for myself: we will continue to work as we have always worked. The conditions have simply changed and this has to be acknowledged. Previously, there was no opportunity to meet and talk with officials, but now there is and this opportunity should be taken advantage of. Maybe tomorrow it will disappear again.

This article was translated and edited based on a publication by Fergana News, 20 December 2021.