My annual report on human rights violations in Uzbekistan was published by Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit” section. The report highlights top-level and low-level corruption as well as police brutality, media censorship, imprisonment and torture of dissidents, and abuse of migrant laborers. Here is an excerpt on one of the most pernicious aspects of life in Uzbekistan – forced labor in the cotton industry:
The use of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has long been the target of domestic and international human rights campaigns. Local officials in Uzbekistan are tasked with ensuring that enough residents work in cotton fields to meet government-set production targets. Children and teenagers are forced to pick cotton and told it is their patriotic duty. In October 2014, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev boasted that Uzbekistan expected to earn $1.2 billion from exporting cotton and textiles that year.
Following years of international criticism, the Uzbek government finally let the International Labor Organization (ILO) deploy teams to Uzbekistan to monitor the cotton harvest in 2013. Their report on the use of forced child and adult labor prompted the United States Department of Labor to condemn the practice in fall 2014. On 18 September, the ILO resumed its monitoring for the fall 2014 harvest season, along with representatives of the World Bank.
Despite the presence of monitors, the cotton harvest continued to structure the lives of ordinary Uzbeks in the same detrimental ways it has in the past. In August, officials banned citizens in Jizzakh province from marrying during the harvest, and forced citizens throughout the country to register as “volunteer” pickers. In September 2014, the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition to end forced labor in Uzbekistan, reported that “officials again imposed production quotas on farmers, forced citizens to weed and prepare the cotton fields, ordered teachers to sign up to work the harvest or resign, and required parents to sign statements that their children would pick cotton or be expelled from high school.”
By mid-October, Ezgulik, an Uzbek human rights organization, had reported fifteen deaths related to cotton picking—mechanical accidents, heart attacks due to strenuous labor, children dying in a fire while left unsupervised by their parents who were forced to work in the fields, and suicides. On social media, Uzbeks reported on fellow citizens injured or killed during the harvest due to unsafe labor conditions and the use of citizens too young or infirm to withstand the harsh labor conditions.
The state cotton industry exploits local officials’ fears of disobeying state laws and citizens’ fears of government retribution. At the same time, some local officials take advantage of the harvest to further their personal ambitions. In May, Uzbek senator (hokim) Saifiddin Sheraliev was arrested for embezzlement and forcing cotton workers to build him a “presidential cottage” while using a deed in his wife’s name.
Disputes between local officials and residents continued outside the cotton industry as well. In Jizzah, a farmer who had a dispute with a local official over a construction project was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital in June. The farmer believes that the local hokim persecuted him on the orders of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzieyev, and pointed to coercion of local officials by national forces. In August, Jizzakh resident Ruhia Bajitova was beaten after complaining to local police about shortages in her residential water supply. Later in the month, she discovered a court case had been started against her for an unspecified crime. She found out about her trial the day before it was held. In September, the court ruled that Bajitova must pay the equivalent of two months salary in fines for “slander” and “affronting the state.”
There has been some confusion on my role at Freedom House. I am not, and have never been, an employee of Freedom House. Freedom House is located in DC. I live in St. Louis. I have yet to set foot in the Freedom House building. I do exactly one thing for Freedom House, which is write a long, meticulously detailed and well-researched report documenting human rights infractions in Uzbekistan. I do this once a year.
It is important that reports like this be written because Uzbekistan’s rights violations are often underplayed and undocumented. It is difficult to find people who have the Uzbek and Russian language skills and research background to document them. Though I am not paid much for my efforts, I am happy to do my part. There are dozens of other freelance researchers putting their language skills and regional knowledge to use to document human rights infractions in other states, and I encourage you to read their reports as well. I hope their families and children are not threatened for their efforts, as mine have been – not by the Karimov regime, but by American regime sympathizers.
Two years ago, I served as an expert witness in an asylum case involving a young Uzbek girl who was in danger of being sent back to Uzbekistan, where due to her father’s political activism she would have faced likely imprisonment and torture. My Freedom House report for that year was included as part of the evidence the judge reviewed to make his decision. He decided to grant her asylum, and told me my report on Uzbekistan – a country about which he knew little — was a key factor in educating him about the country’s political climate and informing his decision. I was pleased that this young woman was spared a cruel and undeserving fate.
I do not feel bad for writing research reports about human rights violations in Uzbekistan. But it is misleading to claim I work at Freedom House since my annual Uzbekistan report is my sole contribution to that organization. I work or have worked for a number of places – Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Foreign Policy and Politico, to name a few – with far greater regularity, yet am not said to be “employed” by any of them. My annual report for Freedom House is one of the many things I write as a freelance writer and scholar of Central Asia. My coverage of Uzbekistan, whether for Freedom House or for the New York Times, has been consistent for the past decade.
There is a faction of the American left that strongly resists documentation of the Karimov regime’s crimes. I’m not particularly interested in their rationale for bleating about my report for Freedom House – this is the same crowd that upon hearing I moderated a one-hour panel on internet freedom at the Clinton Global Initiative, a conference which included hundreds of attendees ranging from Matthew Perry to Muhammad Yunus – said I worked for CGI, then extended this statement to say I also worked for Hillary Clinton, the CIA, and numerous other parties. Logic and facts are not this crowd’s strong suit. But they are mine.
I’m pleased that my report has made people more aware of the brutal conditions of Uzbekistan and helped provide the documentation needed for those unfamiliar with the country to make fair and just decisions as to the fate of its people. When police terrorize citizens, children are compelled to do forced labor, and corruption is endemic to daily life, it is important that the world know. That is why I write this report, despite continued threats to my safety. What I have to contend with is small compared to the threats faced by the Uzbeks whose conditions I document.