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Civil society groups say that forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton sector remains widespread despite some efforts at reform. (file photo)

Uzbekistan has called on a global human rights coalition, the Cotton Campaign, to lift an international boycott of Uzbek cotton and textiles, citing progress in eliminating forced labor and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Uzbekistan has called on a global human rights coalition, the Cotton Campaign, to lift an international boycott of Uzbek cotton and textiles, citing progress in eliminating forced labor and the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

In an open letter to the Cotton Campaign on April 15, Uzbek Labor Minister Nozim Khusanov said the Central Asian country was facing an "unprecedented dual threat” to the economy and public health due to the spread of the coronavirus and lockdown measures.

The government estimates that the end of the boycott, which more than 260 apparel manufacturers and retailers currently follow, could double textile exports to Western markets and create much-needed jobs. The optimistic assessment comes as global demand for apparel has crashed amid the pandemic and brands have been canceling orders all over the world, raising questions of whether lifting the boycott would have an impact.

The Tashkent government says that nearly 7,000 companies in cotton-related industries employ more than 200,000 workers, whose incomes support 1 million people in the country. An estimated 150,000 people in the country have already lost their jobs and more than 140,000 migrant workers have returned home without an income source, it says.

"Your decision to end the cotton boycott would be pivotal. Uzbekistan’s textile sector is one of the country’s leading sources of employment," the letter states.

Rights groups launched the boycott campaign in 2006 to force Uzbekistan to eradicate a long-running state-controlled system forcing millions of citizens to pick cotton and meet harvest quotas.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

Since coming to power in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoev has gradually introduced laws to eliminated forced labor and child labor, and banned provincial authorities from forcing students and public workers to pick cotton. Last month, he signed a decree abolishing the state quota system for cotton production.

However, civil society groups including the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights say that, while Mirziyoev has taken positive steps, forced labor in the cotton sector remains widespread and some agricultural reforms closely mimic the old system.

The Cotton Campaign, which has been working with the Uzbek government to improve the sector, told RFE/RL that Tashkent has taken "significant steps" to end forced labor and implement structural reforms.

"But progress has lagged on...empowering civil society, including registering independent nongovernmental organizations and creating space for workers to organize independently," Cotton Campaign coordinator Allison Gill said.

"We urge the government to allow a free and vibrant civil society to develop, which will help promote transparency and accountability and create a climate for responsible investment," she added.

Alimzhan Izbasarov talks to a reporter shortly after he was drafte, in Nur-Sultan on May 23, 2019.

A Kazakh civil right activist who was drafted into the army ahead of last year's presidential election has been placed in a psychiatric clinic after he attempted to commit suicide, his mother says.

NUR-SULTAN -- A Kazakh civil right activist who was drafted into the army ahead of last year's presidential election has been placed in a psychiatric clinic after he attempted to commit suicide, his mother says.

Alimzhan Izbasarov, 24, tried to kill himself after being a victim of hazing and pressure by officers and other conscripts over his activism, his mother wrote on Facebook on April 13.

After that, he was placed in a psychiatric clinic in the southern city of Taraz, Zhaukhaz Izbasarova said.

The clinic's deputy chief physician, Gulmira Karimova, told RFE/RL that Izbasarov was brought to the facility on April 5 and was currently being treated for psychiatric reasons.

Karimova did not say when Izbasarov, whose military service is expected to end in June, will be discharged from the clinic.

Damir Qasymov, a commander at the military unit in Taraz where Izbasarov was serving, said the activist was being "treated by medical personnel." He refused to provide further details.

Izbasarov was one of many young activists who were abruptly drafted into the army amid mass protests in April-May 2019 against the early presidential election that followed the sudden resignation of first Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, a close ally of Nazarbaev, easily won the June 9 vote.

Izbasarov received his conscription notification after completing a 15-day jail sentence on charges of taking part in an unsanctioned May 1 rally in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

At the time, the activist said that he most likely was drafted because government officials wanted "to make sure that active youth are not around" as the country was getting ready for the presidential poll.

Under Kazakh law, all men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve one year in the armed forces. However, there are many exemptions, including for higher education and health reasons.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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