Police in Uzbekistan reportedly detained and beat Elena Urlaeva, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance, on May 31 in a town outside of Tashkent where she was photographing and interviewing people forced to labor in the country’s vast cotton fields.
The cotton industry is vitally important to the Uzbek economy. Each year, millions of Uzbeks — including children — are pressed into field labor at harvest time. In January 2015, despite an internal 2013 report that a World Bank project had a “plausible” connection to forced labor, the Bank declined to probe the issue further, citing “considerable progress” in the country.
Urlaeva was photographing people conscripted into field labor in the town of Chinaz, about 37 miles outside of the capital, when police caught her. Urlaeva says she was detained for 18 hours, drugged, beaten, and subjected to an invasive body cavity search.
Urlaeva, in a message to Human Rights Watch, described her detention:
While I was at the Chinaz RUVD [district police station], one officer, not very tall, wearing a camouflage uniform, hit me on the head, and they interrogated me about where I hid the data card from the camera, they swore at me and yelled that I am an agent of America, that I am bringing shame on Uzbekistan for money and am giving state secrets to other countries, that they have shut the mouths of all other human rights defender enemies of the state and they only have me and [another human rights defender] left to deal with. They screamed why I still haven’t left [the country] and am making trouble for them with photographs and pickets.
HRW called the ensuring ordeal a “vicious assault.” Urlaeva says the police filmed the entire encounter — including her sedation by doctors and their horrific, forced search of her vagina and rectum for her camera’s flash card — and threatened to post the video if she complained.
Urlaeva, who is 58, is one of Uzbekistan’s last remaining local human rights defenders. In an April profile, Bruce Pannier of RFE/RL called her “the bravest person in Uzbekistan.” He extolled her courage and commitment. Urlaeva has spent two decades exposing child and forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and sounded alarms over hasty arrests, secret trials and disappearances:
And for more than two decades, she’s paid the price. Urlaeva has been detained many, many times. She’s been forcibly committed to psychiatric clinics, ordered by courts to take medications, physically assaulted, and regularly threatened. And she still keeps defending the rights of the people of Uzbekistan.
One by one, Uzbekistan’s human rights defenders have been imprisoned or forced into exile. But Urlaeva won’t leave and she doesn’t seem inclined to let up either.
Steve Swerdlow of HRW said in a press release that “Uzbekistan’s international partners need to stand up for her and send the message to the Uzbek government that this brutal treatment of peaceful activists has to stop.”
The human rights group called on a number of countries and organizations to act “vigorously” in responding to the attack on Urlaeva. The United States and EU, they say, ought to respond with specific policy consequences — such as visa bans and asset freezes.
The International Labor Organization and the World Bank “should take all necessary measures to prevent reprisals against community members, journalists, and independent organizations for monitoring or reporting on human rights violations in its project areas in Uzbekistan.” HWR asks that people like Urlaeva be allowed to access project sites without fear of reprisal.