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Uzbek Rights Activist Alleges Police Abuse, Forced Cavity Search

  • Carl Schreck

Uzbek human rights activist Yelena Urlaeva during a protest in February

Uzbek human rights activist Yelena Urlaeva during a protest in February

A prominent Uzbek rights activist says she was detained by police and subjected to violence and sexual humiliation after she gathered evidence of forced labor in the Central Asian nation’s cotton sector.

Elena Urlaeva, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Defenders' Alliance, said in an e-mail that she was detained May 31 in the town of Chinaz, 60 kilometers southwest of Tashkent, after interviewing and photographing teachers forced by officials to work in cotton fields.

Urlaeva said she was then taken to a local police station, where officers asked about the photographs she had taken and searched her for a flash drive. She said paramedics who were called to the station stripped her and forcibly subjected her to vaginal and rectal cavity searches.

Urlaeva, 58, is widely respected among international rights watchdogs and for nearly two decades has chronicled abuses by Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s government, including the forced labor of children in the former Soviet republic’s cotton industry.

Steve Swerdlow, a Bishkek-based Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Urlaeva’s detention on May 31 and alleged abuse while in police captivity represents “a new low by the Uzbek government” and an effort to “brutalize the country’s civil society.”

“We rarely see cases of brutality [in Uzbekistan] outside of prison that goes so far, and this demands an immediate, unequivocal response by international actors, including the United States and the European Union,” Swerdlow told RFE/RL in a June 1 telephone interview.

Urlaeva said in the May 31 e-mail that she was held by police for nearly 18 hours and that she was taken from the police station to a hospital, where doctors asked whether she swallowed the flash drive and performed X-rays on her chest and stomach.

She said she was then questioned again by police who threatened her and her family, as well as the network of activists she works with. She added that police did not return her camera and notes after confiscating them during her detention.

Swerdlow said he spoke with Urlaeva on June 1 and that she told him police threatened to post nude images of her on the Internet that were taken while she was in custody.

Urlaeva said in the e-mail that she plans to file a complaint against the police officers and doctors in Chingaz involved in her detention and to “continue monitoring forced labor” in Uzbekistan.

Rights activists have long criticized Uzbek authorities for requiring state employees, teachers, and even children, to work in the cotton fields.

The Uzbek-German Forum For Human Rights (UGF) said on June 1 that Uzbekistan’s government launched a “mass forced mobilization to weed cotton fields” on May 10.

It said the government in Tashkent “ordered regional and local authorities throughout the country to organize field workers in their territories.”

In an April report, the Germany-based UGF criticized Karimov’s government for forcing "more than 1 million" Uzbeks to pick cotton in 2014. The report said that at least 17 people died and many others were injured during the last year’s harvest season.

It also alleged that workers toiled in the fields for 10 hours a day with little rest and no days off and were housed in quarters that were often unheated, overcrowded, and lacking clean water and washing facilities.

The World Bank said in February that it had declined to investigate whether agriculture-sector loans to Uzbekistan could perpetuate child and forced labor in the country's cotton industry, a decision that drew harsh criticism from rights activists who have demanded an investigation.

The Washington-based lender cited "considerable progress" Tashkent has made "in addressing the systemic issues necessary for the eradication of child and forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton sector."