June 2, 2015 (Washington, DC): Police in Uzbekistan arrested and brutalized human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva on Sunday, May 31, as she was documenting systematic, government-organized forced labor in the country’s cotton fields. The Cotton Campaign demands justice for Elena Urlaeva and calls on the United States government, European Union and international institutions engaged with Uzbekistan on labor and agricultural issues, particularly the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Bank, to cease further engagement unless authorities in Tashkent allow human rights activists to carry out their important and completely legal monitoring work.
“I have never experienced such humiliation in my life, said Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan. “The police were laughing and enjoying humiliating me.”
On May 31, Ms. Urlaeva documented the Uzbek government’s forced mobilization of teachers and doctors to clear weeds from cotton fields near the city of Chinaz in Tashkent region. Kindergarten teachers told her that the mayor had ordered the schools to send them to weed the fields. Urlaeva also photographed 60 physicians pressed into work in the cotton fields by representatives of the city hall.
Police then arrested Urlaeva, injected her with unknown sedatives, and, led by the First Deputy Chief of the local Police Department, interrogated her for 18 hours. During the interrogation, the police struck her in the head. While the police held her, doctors probed Ms. Urlaeva in the vagina and anus until she bled, and took X-rays, after accusing her of hiding a data chip. She was denied access to a toilet, ordered to relieve herself outside, and photographed nude. The police threatened more physical violence and confiscated her camera, notebook and information sheet of ILO conventions.
Ms. Urlaeva’s observations fit a pattern of forced labor by the Uzbek government throughout the springtime cotton field preparation season, as documented by the Alliance and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. The violent response by the Chinaz police reflects an essential element of the government’s forced labor system: the use of coercion—imprisonment, assault, harassment and intimidation of citizens reporting human rights concerns.
“I will hold on to the end,” said Ms. Urlaeva. “I will withstand everything and do it for all the people who have been abused by the authorities.”
The abuse of Elena Urlaeva demands urgent action from the Uzbek government to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice and from the international community to demonstrate strong support for Uzbek rights monitors and intolerance of any violence against human rights activists. The Cotton Campaign urges:
The government of Uzbekistan to conduct a transparent investigation of the assault, bring to justice the public officials responsible for the brutalization of Elena Urlaeva, and issue a public statement that: 1) independent human rights organizations, activists and journalists have the right to investigate and report on conditions in the cotton production sector without facing retaliation and 2) any police or officials who assault or detain monitors will be prosecuted;
The United States government and European Union to monitor Elena Urlaeva’s well-being, conduct an investigation, document the abuses committed against her, and make clear to the Uzbek government that continued attacks against monitors will have consequences; and
The ILO and the World Bank to convey to the government of Uzbekistan that such treatment of human rights activists is completely unacceptable and will threaten the viability of future projects; to take all necessary measures to prevent reprisals against community members, journalists, and independent organizations for monitoring or reporting on human rights violations in their project areas; to seek an enforceable commitment from the government that it will not interfere with independent reporting and engagement; and to end projects if any more violent attacks against human rights monitors occur.
The Cotton Campaign is a global coalition of labor, human rights, investor and business organizations coalesced to end forced labor of children and adults in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.