Uzbekistan’s 2009 cotton harvest is in, but at what price?

The country’s top leadership has issued the list of the leading cotton producing districts in this year’s harvest.  Among them are the Gurlen district of Khorezm province and the Ellikkalin district of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.  Below for a selection of the evidence of forced labour in these and other districts, as well as information on cases of illness and even death resulting from the state’s poor organisation of harvest labour.

October 2009

Three hundred fifty medical workers split into six groups took part in harvesting cotton in Yangibazar district of Khorezm region. They were ordered to pick a quota of 60 kg each per day, totalling over 15 tons daily.  One hundred fifty of the medical workers from the Yangibazar district central hospital were assigned to one Yangibazar farm alone; they were under obligation to gather 120 tons of cotton.  During the course of their work there were cases of fevers and intensified chronic illnesses among the rural residents picking cotton in the same fields.  That segment of the population generally does not have money to purchase medications or to see doctors, which aids in spreading colds and other viruses throughout the villages.  At the same time, since medical personnel are distracted from their primary occupation in the autumn [when they are out picking cotton], the level of care provided to patients with infectious diseases is lowered.

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On 13 October an employee of the Khorezm Oncological Centre, G.U. (name withheld to protect the victim’s privacy), born in 1982, was beaten, robbed and raped on her way home from picking cotton in the Urgench district.  At 7 pm she was walking home in an unpopulated area along the highway when she was attacked by an unknown man, 25 kilometers from the centre of Urgench.  She was hospitalized in critical condition.

Usually G.U.’s husband walked her home from work, but, he could not on that day.  After this incident her husband’s family cut off any contact with G.U.  In Uzbekistan, especially in rural areas, because of certain cultural and religious traditions and the mentality, the victim is usually blamed in these circumstances, which only intensifies her trauma. Her husband had previously requested that her employer, the Oncological Centre, exempt her from picking cotton, but the Chief Doctor (Svetlana Ibragimova Palvanova) refused, citing the need to fulfil the district governor’s instructions to mobilize all workers to harvest the cotton.

The local police detained the suspected attacker shortly thereafter, and are currently investigating the crime.

The victim continues to experience traumatic effects, the future impact of which is difficult to predict.  Nevertheless, G.U. is not planning to sue her employer who failed to provide safe conditions during the work day.  Labour law requires that employers must supply workers with transportation if those workers are required to carry out tasks that require supplemental transport to different worksites. However in Uzbekistan very few workers are aware of their rights set out in collective bargaining agreements or even in national legislation.  There is a high level of unemployment in the country and so many citizens withstand unbelievable humiliation just to preserve their jobs.  Enterprise directors prefer to follow the unwritten directives of their superiors, as the experience shows, for the very same reason-to preserve their own jobs, which confer status in society and material benefits.

The management of the Khorezm Oncological Centre is doing its utmost to prevent the discovery of any written orders given to the victim regarding the cotton harvest.  It seems, therefore, that no one is planning to compensate the victim for her physical and moral suffering…?

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A cotton-harvest related automobile crash in the Urgench district of Khorezm province on October 26 took the life of a 28 year old doctor.  A bus carrying employees of the Urgench Central District Hospital was returning from the cotton fields when it was struck in the side by a wagon carrying cotton which had uncoupled from its tractor on a poor stretch of the road.  In addition to the doctor, two hospital employees were hospitalised in critical condition and two other bus passengers were injured.

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The Association “Human Rights in Central Asia” has concluded that the organisers of this year’s cotton harvest were not able to provide workers with free choice of employment or with fair conditions of employment, as laid out in article 37 of the Constitution of Uzbekistan.

The Republic of Uzbekistan Labour Code, which came into force on 1 April 1996, contains more than thirty articles directly related to workers’ protection.  For example, article 241 forbids persons younger than 18 years of age from engaging in work that is harmful to health.  This national norm applies not only to those up to the age of 15 (as specified in the Law on Guarantees of the Rights of Children), but covers fully all persons up to the age 18.

The last list of territories where work conditions are prononced harmful to health was promulgated by the government in 1996; the lack of a current list prevents persons living and working in those zones from receiving state benefit payments.
Labour unions in the country are completely inactive, playing very little role in relations between employees and workers.  It is noteworthy that the chairman of the Federation of Labour Unions of Uzbekistan serves at the same time as a member of the government.  This crudely violates the fundamental principles of organizing a labour union – the independence of unions from the executive branch of the government, from local government, and other social and political groups.  It is for this reason that the Federation of Trade Unions of Uzbekistan is still not accepted as a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
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Members of the Association have documented photographically the use of forced child labour in those regions praised as “first rate” cotton producers by the government, including the Gurlen district of Khorezm province.  In the Ellikalin district of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, young people worked in fields sprayed with toxic chemicals, and as a result, many of them contracted intestinal illnesses.  Medical offices have refused either to register those illnesses or to document their likely cause.
© Association for Human Rights in Central Asia
© Association for Human Rights in Central Asia




Uzbekistan: Development of human rights movement under deficit of objectivity, equity and justice

Report and recommendations for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

General background
Human rights movement in Uzbekistan is on the verge of survival, it is oppressed everywhere by the authorities of any rank. Human rights activists enjoying confidence of the population and international observers, experience total control of the law-enforcement agencies. Their open criticism of the weaknesses of national mechanisms of human rights protection and violations of the standards of international law is perceived by the authorities as a crime.
According to the data available to our organization, at present time 17 human rights activists serve sentences in prisons on trumped up criminal charges; over the years, more than 50 members of human rights organizations were prosecuted under administrative or criminal legislation; 75 civil society activists were forced to leave the country. Emigration process  of human rights activists became most active in 2005 and is growing in intensity.
When any form of public expression of disagreement with the official doctrine occurs the Repressive State apparatus responds with torture. According to IGIHRDU[1], andThe Club of Ardent Hearts”, non-governmental organization, about 1000 employees of the law enforcement agencies and medical institutions were involved in practices of torture. Methods of applying physical and moral pressure of these butchers are very refined. Any attempts to prosecute the officials responsible turn against the victims and human rights activists.
Biased estimate by international monitors of current situation actually encourages targeted reprisals against country’s human rights movement representatives by the Uzbek government. This results in sheer moral and physical exhaustion of the human rights workers and defeat of hopes for justice of all victims of human rights violations.
Estimate of the OSCE observers’ reports

The director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Janez Lenarcic illogically came to conclusion that Uzbekistan stepped up  in development of human rights in the country. In his analysis, he notes that:
improvement of conditions of detention. This conclusion can hardly be considered objective as there is still no public control of respect for human rights at places of imprisonment, the authorities refuse to cooperate with non-governmental organizations and the penal system remains subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior[2]. The fact that 200 deaths of prisoners occurred for the last 2 years, as stated by the IGIHRDU, destroys any illusion of improvement;
- abolition of the death penalty. Officially the death penalty is not applied in the country. But in fact those sentenced to life imprisonment are doomed for suspended death. The prison for prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment was constructed on the grounds of Soviet test chemical weapons test facility. Inhuman condition of detention is worsened further by severe climatic conditions in the zone of Aral ecological crisis. Keeping the prisoners there itself would amount to torture as staying in such constitutes carries unrecoverable health risk;
- release of some human rights activists. Individual cases of release of political prisoners, considering respective context, at best, can be classified as manipulating the observers: when some political prisoners go free under pressure of international community the available place in prison remains free a short while – it is occupied soon by other victim of arbitrary treatment. For several years the regime uses all possible means of reprisals against human rights activists, prosecuting them, depriving of liberty for long terms. Cases of forced testimonies against oneself and one's colleagues became more frequent. All this thumbs the society down and restricts flow of reliable information;
- active cooperation of the OSCE and Uzbekistan on human rights. In Uzbekistan the absolute majority of human rights activists perform their activities informally. For instance, organizations The Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (created in 1992) and Mothers Against Death Penalty and Torture (created in 2000) made unsuccessful attempts to get registration in the Ministry of Justice.

It is worthy of noting that in the period of active cooperation of the OSCE with Uzbekistan in field of human rights, the human rights activists lost their right to appear as social defenders therefore right to participate in criminal proceedings. Prior to this change, a human rights activist had a right to present evidence, take part in studying the evidence and perform other duties of an attorney.

Our organization observes that it is getting harder and harder to access the alternative sources of information on dismaying situation of human rights in Uzbekistan. It is hard to understand why the broadcast time of “Deutsche Welle”, International French Radio (RFI), “Voice of America and other western mass media is degreased. Internet is accessible hardly to one tenth of population in Uzbekistan. Moreover access to the internet resources with content unwanted by the authorities is being blocked by the security service. So population in Uzbekistan is deprived of the last breath of fresh air in close informational atmosphere of the Central Asian regimes. The authorities still deny broadcast permission in the country to the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and BBC World Service

Uzbek human rights activists face severe problems not only because they have to work in tough conditions but also are struggling to survive. Much to our regret the OSCE and European Union follow cynical pragmatics of geopolitics instead of morals of the Bill of Rights.
Reprisals against human rights activists

The imprisoned human rights activists are in the most difficult condition. Agzam Turgunov, director ofMazlumhuman rights center, who is sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment,  in his recent letter wrote: “Here it is the most difficult to survive and remain a human able to face reality no matter what…”. Activists in custody suffer particular oppression for openly defending the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By all possible prohibited measures they are forced to admit offenses alleged to them. Many of them are physically exhausted, suffering from tuberculosis and other serious diseases. (The list of imprisoned human rights activists is attached).

On August 28, 2009, the Senate of the Parliament of Uzbekistan adopted a decree on amnesty.  Many of prisoners from the list have ground for claiming for premature release according to Paragraph 3 of the document (on release of persons who suffer severe diseases, which makes it impossible to serve a sentence). Though, we know it for sure that before the act of amnesty was issued many of them had been charged with violation of the discipline by prison administrative decisions. Some of them had been prosecuted under Article 221 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan (On disobedience to lawful requests of prison administration).

The crusade against human rights activists in continued since the year 2004. Analysis of evolution of treatment of human rights activists by the authorities gives us a picture that the policy is purposefully pursued:

In 2004 main mechanism of oppression against the protesting, consisted of intimidation and organized attacks on human rights activists who were later accused of alleged acts of hooliganism, notwithstanding being victims of such acts planned by the authorities.
In 2005 all leading human rights activists advocated the request of the European Union concerning carrying out international investigation of the Andijan events by a team of experts including independent ones. The response of the authorities were accusations of blackmail, economic crime and defamation. All of this was done aiming at discrediting the human rights movement.
In 2006 with the purpose of suppressing all efforts of dissemination of materials with objective estimation of the events in Andijan human rights activists and other civil society representatives were accused of dissemination of prohibited literature and crossing the border illegally.
In the years 2007-2008, during the period of actively intensified EU-Uzbekistan dialog on human rights, arrests of human rights activists accused of defamation continued, torture and made up accusations against political prisoners proceeded. Simultaneously pressure on their relatives aimed at forcing the prisoners to write to the president of the country petitions asking forgiveness increased.
In 2009 we received reports concerning falls accusations against human rights activists related to derogation of the foundations of the constitutional system and other grave offenses. During pre-trial investigation they are denied a lawyer.
It is impossible to underestimate the geopolitical position of Uzbekistan. And the authorities of the country are well aware of it. Short-term gain from arranged cooperation of the West with Karimov’s regime betrays slim hope of population of Uzbekistan for justice.
Recommendations for the OSCE and European Union

Human rights activists try to inform parties of the dialog on human rights between the OSCE, European Union and the government of Uzbekistan to attain conditions for stable legal system to be created.

1. Keep the issue of release of human rights activists who suffered for their activism in the agenda of the Dialog until all of them are released;
2. In the context of implementation of the decision of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE of 2007 concerning human rights activists and national human rights institutions:

·      To draw attention to the fact that the Decree of the Senate of Oliy Madjlis of the Uzbekistan of 28 August 2009, “On amnesty in celebration of the eighteenth anniversary of the declaration of independence of the Republic of Uzbekistan” caused: a) a tide of reprisals against imprisoned civil society activists, especially of those who eligible  for release according to the provision of the Article 3 (on the release of persons who suffer severe diseases, which makes it impossible to serve a sentence); b) intentional refusal of proper medical aid and ignoring obvious facts of deterioration of health of imprisoned civil society activists;

·      To support human rights defenders who sustain their activities in circumstances of their threatened security;

3. Ensure visit of the Committee of the “Red Cross” to imprisoned human rights activists whose state of health calls for special concern. The list is attached;

4. Promote adoption of legislation regulating law enforcement bodies of the country in performing their duties in Uzbekistan, such as: a) the Law on Militia of the Republic of Uzbekistan; b) the Law on the National Security Service of Uzbekistan; c) the Law on Criminal Investigation Activities of the Republic of Uzbekistan;

5. Insist on adoption of the Law on civil control of respect for human rights in detention to meet the obligations under the Helsinki agreement, adopted by the government of Uzbekistan;

6 Register human rights organizations of Uzbekistan.

[1] IGIHRDU — Initiative group of independent human rights defenders of Uzbekistan
[2]The Central Administration of Executing Punishments is subordinated to the Ministry of Interior providing fertile ground for the practice of torture against the convicted. It is appropriate to hand over this department to the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan which does not comprise the activities to detect and investigate crime.


Uzbek refugee children may freeze to death in the Iranian mountains

On 21 January 2009 humanitarian organisations sent a letter to Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They appealed for the rescue of 27 Uzbek refugees who are currently hiding in the Iranian mountains. They urgently need to be transferred to a country willing to take them in.
At present 27 mandate refugees – Uzbek citizens – are residing on the territory of Iran, in a situation bordering on a humanitarian crisis. Among them are 15 minors, including 3 babies and 6 women, one of whom is pregnant. They were illegally brought to Iran from Turkey on 11 October 2008.

It has been more than three months that they have been living in the north-west of Iran – in the mountains, in unbearable conditions. Air temperature in this area goes below -10°C, it is always windy, the first snow fell in September. The families with children, including young babies, are living in summer lodgings built in the caves and unsuitable for living in the winter period. The children have grown weak because of the cold and hunger. Sometimes the local population helps them with food, but since the winter set in, travelling in the mountains has become dangerous and their help is now rare.
These people arrived in Turkey in September 2007 from Iran, where they had earlier been qualified for international protection by UNHCR mission. They were forced to move, as in Iran they did not have the right to work and hence had no livelihood, their children were not admitted to schools, and there were no prospects of resettlement to a third country.
All of them are from the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan. They left their home country in the 1990s, fleeing the Uzbek authorities’ repression of those who attend the mosque of one of the most famous imams in Uzbekistan – Abduvali-qori Mirzaev. These people knew nothing about the system of international protection. Having seen a programme on Uzbek TV about a camp for “religious refugees” on the territory of Tajikistan, they set off for this camp without suspecting they would find themselves in an Islamists’ camp. So this life of displacement, started in Tajikistan, brought them to Turkey through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
On the territory of Turkey they complied with the Turkish migration law: Immediately upon arrival they registered with the UNHCR mission in the town of Van and at the local police station. Nevertheless, within one month they were twice expelled to Iran: for the first time on 12 September 2008, while Turkish policemen tore apart all their papers. In Iran they fell victim to bandits who demanded a ransom and threatened them with death if they did not get one. A week later the refugees managed to return to Van, however on the night of 11 October 2008 the police hauled them out of bed and brought them to a mountainous area on the territory of Iran again.
When the frosts set in, the refugees made several attempts to reach a camp in the town of Arok where they had lived before moving to Turkey, but they were not allowed to go through Iranian customs.
The people are desperate and are begging us to save at least the children.
There is no doubt that the conditions in which these refugees are living present an imminent threat for their life and health. They have no access to medical or indeed to any regular humanitarian aid. The situation they find themselves in could lead to irreparable consequences.
The numerous attempts by representatives of the international community to secure support from the Turkish government, or Turkish parliamentary deputies, in order to provide relief have failed.
We consider that these refugees are in urgent need of a resettlement to a third country.
The following people appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres:
Nadejda Atayeva, President of the Association “Human Rights in Central Asia”, Le Mans, France

Svetlana Gannushkina, Chairperson of the Civic Assistance Committee, Board member and head of Migration Rights Network. Moscow, Russia

Oleg Orlov, Chairperson of the Memorial Human Rights Center Board, Board member of Memorial International

Sergey Kovalev, President of the Memorial Human Rights Center, president of the Institute of Human Rights, Moscow, Russia

Valentin Gefter, Director of the Institute for Human Rights, Moscow, Russia

Bjorn Engesland, Secretary General, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Oslo, Norway

Danuta Przywara President of the Board of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Warsaw, Poland