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Happy Birthday, Elena Urlaeva!

Elena Mikhailovna Urlaeva is one of the world's strongest people. Her strength comes from her morality, her sense of fairness, and her respect for others.
Elena Mikhailovna Urlaeva is one of the world's strongest people. Her strength comes from her morality, her sense of fairness, and her respect for others.

Apologies for the belated good wishes.

Chances are that anyone who has followed developments in Uzbekistan for the past two decades has heard of Elena Urlaeva. But for those who have not, or those who might not know her so well, we'd like to share with you a bit about the courageous woman we know.

Elena Mikhailovna Urlaeva is one of the world's strongest people. Her strength comes from her morality, her sense of fairness, and her respect for others.

There are, of course, many Uzbek human rights defenders, both inside and outside the country, who deserve great honor and recognition for their daily sacrifices to the cause of human rights. But we wanted to make sure to send our best wishes for Elena's 60th birthday, which she marked on January 21.

Elena was born in the western city of Andijon, though she grew up in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, where she still lives.

Elena is a human rights defender in a country where the government has not shown much regard for the rights of citizens for a quarter of a century. Uzbekistan's government has a long record of torture, forced labor, censorship, and religious persecution, and is believed to hold thousands of political prisoners.

Elena's been threatened, beaten, locked up, and confined to psychiatric hospitals, but none of that has stopped her from standing outside courtrooms to protest unfair legal proceedings against Uzbekistan's citizens, or from going out into the cotton fields at harvest time to try to document the use of forced labor.

Not so long ago, the cotton was picked by children forced by the government to work in the fields rather than attend school; but thanks to Elena and others like her, that is not so much the case anymore.

One particularly brutal attack on Elena took place in May 2015, when police officers in the town of Chinaz detained her as she was interviewing doctors and teachers forced to pick cotton. Police and medical staff under their control forcibly sedated Elena, and then subjected her to a body-cavity search, X-rays, and other cruel and degrading treatment during an 11-hour interrogation, saying they were looking for a memory card from her camera.

Elena has seen countless colleagues land in prison or be forced to flee the country over the years.

Anyone who endured even a fraction of the horrors Elena has lived through simply for peacefully criticizing the government would be easily forgiven for choosing to leave the ranks of Uzbekistan's courageous human rights defenders. But rather than retreat into the shadows, Elena keeps fighting.

Those of us who have been privileged to spend time with Elena in Uzbekistan have most likely been invited to visit her at her apartment on the outskirts of the city, which doubles as the nerve center for the human rights group she heads, the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and is a meeting point for activists, victims of abuses, and visiting diplomats.

A collection of courageous souls who accompany Elena on various protests, alliance members monitor human rights in a country that has become one of the most closed in the world -- Uzbekistan has banned both our organizations, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Human Rights Watch (HRW), just for doing our work. Alliance members also provide much-needed moral support and encouragement to the victims of abuse -- forced laborers, torture victims, political prisoners, and their family members -- who need it the most.

Apart from all the arrests and ill-treatment, Elena also lives a life of constant surveillance. For those of us who live in free societies, it is easy to take for granted just how invasive life can be for a human rights activist in authoritarian Uzbekistan.

One example came the day one of us visited Elena at her home in 2010. Five minutes after the visit began, we heard a knock at the door. Elena opened the door to find the neighborhood policeman. He had just come by to check everything was "OK." As she is with the many officials she deals with, Elena was polite but firm, rejecting the policeman's "offer" to come inside the apartment.

Relieved to be able to resume the conversation, the calm didn't last long. Five minutes later came another knock at the door. It was the meterman; he had come ostensibly to check Elena's water usage. Elena again sent him packing and, as if nothing had happened, launched effortlessly back into a discussion about a torture case she was monitoring:

"I went in to see this young man detained at the police station," she said. "He told me that several officers had forced him to confess to having stolen a cell phone. They put cellophane over his head and then put a gas mask on him. He couldn't breathe and eventually...."

Knock, knock, knock. This time it was someone insisting on checking the gas meter. Sending this one away, Elena almost pitied the man, saying he was a "shestyorka" -- a Russian slang term that is hard to translate but means an ineffectual, pathetic, powerless person forced to do someone else's bidding. This is Elena's life.

Elena's nerves of steel are what allow her to keep going. She understands all too well that behind the endless visits stands Uzbekistan's security service, the country's most powerful and feared institution, commonly known by its Russian acronym, SNB.

Last year was a tough one for Elena. In August, she lost her husband of 20 years, Mansur, whom the security services also constantly harassed as a way to get to her. Amid her grief, Elena did what she always does. She wrote a moving public letter about their love and commitment, which defied years of pressure by the authorities.

Ultimately, Elena's is a profile of profound courage in the face of incredible repression. Hopes are now high that Uzbekistan's new president may see that it is time to improve the country's abysmal record. But absent concrete evidence, this journalist and human rights activist are not holding our breath.

Elena, you're needed now more than ever. We sincerely hope that your years of activism and self-sacrifice will finally see an Uzbekistan that is more democratic, more open, and more just.

Happy birthday, Elena Mikhailovna! S dnyom rozhdenia! Tug'ilgan kuningiz bilan!

Steve Swerdlow is Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch and was director of Human Rights Watch's Tashkent office before the authorities forced its closure. Follow both authors on Twitter @brucepannier and @steveswerdlow
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.​

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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