United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov June 12 to stop using forced labor in cotton fields and improve the treatment of prisoners.
Under the authoritarian rule of Karimov since 1989, Central Asia's most populous nation has achieved sustained economic growth but has been criticized by the West for crackdowns on dissent and basic freedoms.
"President Karimov has emphasized the importance of the rule of law. But laws in the books should be made real in the lives of people," Ban told reporters after meeting Karimov in Tashkent as part of a tour of five former communist Central Asian states.
"Uzbekistan has made important progress in eliminating child labor in the cotton sector. Now more must be done to address the mobilization of teachers, doctors, and others in cotton harvesting, and prevent bad treatment of prisoners."
Uzbekistan is among the world's largest producers and exporters of cotton. The state obliges citizens from other sectors of the economy to spend time working in the cotton fields for minimal pay each year, earning large revenues for the state.
Meanwhile, international human rights groups say there are thousands of political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. They say that torture is common, including burning opponents of the regime with boiling water, while arbitrary extensions of imprisonment are rife in local jails.
The authorities say they are trying to improve the situation in prisons. Karimov justifies his tough grip on power by citing the need to prevent the spread of radical Islam.
While criticizing Uzbekistan's track record on democracy, the West values the country of 30 million people as an ally in a volatile region.
Ban said the UN appreciates Uzbekistan's contribution to supporting stability and development in Afghanistan, and praised its progress at home on health, education, and combating poverty.
But he added, "There can be no peace and development without human rights."
In the build up to Ban's Uzbekistan visit, rights groups called for him to discuss torture and forced labour in his meeting with Karimov.
"Even with Ban's impending visit, the Uzbekistani police and security apparatus continues to brazenly commit acts of torture," John Dalhuisen, director of Amnesty International's European and Central Asia Program, said earlier this week.
"For more than a decade, Uzbekistan has thumbed its nose at every UN attempt to confront it with its grievous human rights abuses."
There was also pressure on Ban to raise the case of long-time Uzbekistani human rights defender Elena Urlaeva, who was subjected to what Human Rights Watch called "cruel and degrading treatment" after being arrested for documenting forced labor in a cotton field not far from Tashkent at the end of last month.
The group said Urlaeva was sedated and her cavities searched by Uzbek police after her arrest. In the past she has been fined, beaten, and forced into psychiatric treatment by Uzbek officials.
Ban's tour has already taken in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. His trip will conclude in gas-rich Turkmenistan over the weekend.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters