Dmitry Tikhonov is safe, and for that I am glad.
But his recent flight from Uzbekistan leaves the people of that Central Asian country with one less voice to speak for them, and that thought is disturbing to me, all the more so due to the way Tikhonov was run out of the country.
Tikhonov was a rare breed in Uzbekistan, a rights activist and an independent journalist. And "rare" is actually a generous way to describe rights activists and independent journalists in Uzbekistan; it is perhaps more accurate to say "nearly extinct."
Tikhonov has documented forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton fields. For many years, children were taken into the fields to pick the cotton, but due to the work of people like Tikhonov and complaints from international rights organizations, Uzbek authorities a few years ago finally halted this practice. However, the children were replaced by compulsory work by college students and adults, including schoolteachers, doctors, and factory workers.
Tikhonov documented that also, and wrote articles that were published by websites outside Uzbekistan, such as Fergananews.com. A December 18, 2013, New York Times article about forced labor during the cotton harvest mentioned Tikhonov:
"In this system, your boss at work is also your boss in the fields. Cotton-picking skills become a component of annual job evaluations, skewing decisions on promotions, said Dmitri Tikhonov, a rights activist and an authority on Uzbekistan's cotton-picking policies."
I first heard about Tikhonov in early 2010, after two men assaulted him while he was working in his garage. Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote: "They choked him and hit him over the head with a metal object, leaving him unconscious. Neither his cell phone nor his wallet was taken. The police agreed to investigate only reluctantly and after several days had passed."
The HRW statement added that "There is no doubt that the vicious attack on Tikhonov was meant to intimidate him, to stop his human rights activity."
If stopping Tikhonov's human rights activity was the goal, it failed. In December 2010, Tikhonov joined fellow rights defenders Abdullo Tajiboy-ugli, Vladimir Khusainov, and Viktoria Bazhenova in Tashkent, at Mustaqillik Maydoni (Independence Square). They held up signs that read, "President resign" and "We demand new elections."
Police arrived and ordered them to leave, which the rights activists did. But the four were detained shortly afterward and taken to a police station, then transferred to a district court where they were convicted of violating the order of holding public meetings, rallies, marches, or demonstrations. The court ordered them to pay the equivalent of 60-70 times the monthly minimum wage in fines, a sum amounting to between $1,780 and $2,080.
Tikhonov continued his work as a rights activist with the usual problems of detentions and fines, but in April 2015 the situation changed. Tikhonov had been reporting on the demolition of a Soviet-era World War II monument in his home city of Angren, some 80 kilometers from the capital, Tashkent. On April 20, he left a local cafe and encountered a young man, who reportedly picked a fight with Tikhonov. Tikhonov later said he had no idea who the man was or what the cause of the dispute was.
However, Tikhonov and veteran rights defender Yelena Urlaeva had filed a request with the Tashkent provincial governor's office to hold a demonstration against the demolition of the monument on April 22. (The request was rejected.)
On September 20, 2015, Angren police detained Tikhonov on suspicion of petty hooliganism. His accusers were three women who claimed Tikhonov had used foul language in a cafe where they were all eating. The three women were all officials of Angren mahalla (neighborhood/community) committees.
Tikhonov left Angren temporarily at the end of September, later saying he did so because he was being followed by security agents. On October 20, in the middle of the night, his apartment caught fire. Tikhonov returned and noticed that the blaze seemed to have been confined to his workroom. He said a special metal box that he used to store computer hard drives with records of his rights activities had survived the fire but was empty. He commented that even if the fire had destroyed the hard drives there should have been some burnt material left there. Also destroyed in the fire were one of Tikhonov's computers (another was missing), mobile phone, photographs, and all documents pertaining to his work as a rights activist.
Early in 2016, Tikhonov crossed into Kazakhstan, where he stayed until leaving Central Asia.
Tikhonov arrived in Berlin on April 4 and requested political asylum.