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Young Uzbek women take a break from picking cotton.

As the cotton harvest kicks off in early September, it's downtime for the wedding business in Uzbekistan's Samarkand Province.

Local authorities have instructed restaurants and "tuykhona" wedding venues in rural areas not to host wedding banquets -- or any parties at all -- until the cotton-picking campaign is complete.

The Samarkand provincial government's Social Affairs Department told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the instruction was issued at the level of district authorities in order to speed up the cotton campaign.

"The sooner they finish harvesting cotton, the earlier they can start the wedding parties before the weather turns cold," said an official from the Social Affairs Department. "Nothing is wrong with it."

For those planning weddings, however, the order means an abrupt change of plans and a plenty of inconvenience.

A resident of the Ishtikhon district said his sister had set her wedding date months in advance for September 10.

Invitations were sent to guests and preparations were well under way. But the wedding venue canceled the banquet at short notice, citing what the bride's brother said was described as a verbal ban ordered by officials.

Uzbek couples continue to marry during the cotton harvest season, but at home instead of at restaurants and wedding halls.
Uzbek couples continue to marry during the cotton harvest season, but at home instead of at restaurants and wedding halls.

No other venue would accept booking, the man told RFE/RL.

The family was left with no choice but to throw together a gathering at home instead of holding the dream wedding the young couple had planned, he said.

The bride's brother spoke on condition of anonymity because talking to foreign media can get people in trouble with the authorities in Uzbekistan, where independent media is banned and free speech is stifled by President Islam Karimov's government.

All wedding venues have been closed across Samarkand's Kattaqurghon district and restaurants are refusing to host weddings, a local resident said. "The authorities believe weddings distract people from cotton-harvesting."

"But the ban didn't stop people from hosting weddings, especially, those who had set the date long in advance," he said, adding: "Families want to have it done with before winter arrives. People are hosting weddings at home now, which means lots of unnecessary inconvenience."

Most wedding banquets in Uzbekistan are held in restaurants and tuykhonas, sparing families the trouble of organizing chairs and tableware for dozens or hundreds of guests.

Restaurants, Tuykhonas Warned

A tuykhona owner in Kattaqurghon said that the authorities have told him and others not to "disrupt" the cotton harvest by hosting parties of any kind.

"They even told us to take part in cotton picking, instead," he said.

The harvest usually lasts through mid-November.

Uzbekistan, a top cotton producer and exporter, has been widely criticized for suspending classes at schools and universities during the cotton campaign and sending students to cotton fields.

Uzbek authorities say they have stopped the practice in recent years after several Western companies, such as Adidas, H&M, and IKEA boycotted Uzbek cotton.

Teachers, doctors, and other public- and private-sector employees are also required to take part in cotton harvesting.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

Belarusian opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich has held an unauthorized rally in central Minsk.

Statkevich, who was released from prison last month after being pardoned by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, held the demonstration despite being warned by police to end it.

Although plainsclothes police monitored the rally, security forces did not interrupt the protest.

A few hundred people came to the rally, where Statkevich urged people to ignore the October 11 presidential election.

He said the most important thing for the opposition is to be able to ensure that fair elections will be held in Belarus.

Statkevich said it is important for the opposition to unite in order to realistically oppose Lukashenka.

Opposition figures Anatol Lebedko and Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu were among those who attended the rally and spoke via loudspeaker to supporters.

Statkevich was a candidate in the 2010 presidential election but was arrested immediately afterwards and later convicted of "organizing mass disturbances."

Several other presidential candidates were also arrested and later sentenced to prison.

Statkevich was released with five other prisoners -- all six of whom were considered political prisoners by human rights groups -- on August 22.

Their release was seen as a concession by Lukashenka to the EU for improving ties ahead of the upcoming presidential election.

With reporting by TASS

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