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Cotton Campaign Urges Uzbekistan to Investigate Harassment of Activists

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Cotton Campaign Urges Uzbekistan to Investigate Harassment of Activists

In April, noted Uzbek human rights activist Umida Niyazova and a journalist were harassed by two men as they planned to tour Fergana and speak to farmers.

Cotton Campaign Urges Uzbekistan to Investigate Harassment of Activists
Credit: Depositphotos

Two years after the the Cotton Campaign called for the global boycott of Uzbek cotton to be lifted, following monitoring by groups like the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights that found “no systemic or systematic, government-imposed forced labor during the cotton harvest,” monitors continue to face difficulties in Uzbekistan. 

On May 2, the Cotton Campaign urged the Uzbek government to take action to protect those engaged in independent monitoring and reporting on labor rights following the harassment of a well-known activist and a journalist in mid-April.

Umida Niyazova, the executive director of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, and Sharifa Madrakhimova, a journalist and human rights activist, were reportedly ambushed by two men on April 18 outside Madrakhimova’s home in the Fergana region. The women were planning to tour the region to speak to farmers and companies engaged in Uzbekistan’s lucrative cotton industry.

As the Cotton Campaign reported:

The two men intimidated and insulted Niyazova and Madrakhimova and accused Niyazova of “organizing information attacks against Uzbekistan”. Niyazova and Madrakhimova got in their car to avoid further interaction and one of the men gripped the door to prevent them from closing it and driving away. Niyazova and Madrakhimova had been traveling throughout the region to meet with farmers and representatives of cotton companies. Fearing for their own safety and that of the farmers and local human rights activists they were planning to meet, Niyazova cut her trip short. 

According to the Cotton Campaign, one of the men was later identified as Shukhrat Esanov, a blogger with a YouTube following of 280,000. On  April 28, he released a video further attacking Niyazova. The campaign said that Esanov knew the two women’s itinerary, “suggesting that Niyazova and Madrakhimova had been under surveillance, and raising questions about how he had access to information regarding their whereabouts and plans.”

This incident follows several others that human rights activists have highlighted as deeply troubling as they further underscore a backsliding on human rights in Uzbekistan. 

In two incidents earlier in April, Cotton Campaign said, “Police summoned and interrogated for several hours a member of the Ezgulik human rights organization and a farmer, both based in Kasbi district of Kashkadarya. Police accused both of engaging in actions that are ‘harmful to Uzbekistan.’”

And in January, an independent monitor working on the Indorama Agro project – an effort to modernize cotton production in Uzbekistan financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – was told by government security officials that their work was “dangerous.”

The emerging theme centers on a devious accusation that human rights activists and independent monitors are deliberately hurting Uzbekistan with their activities. In exposing labor rights violations and, ultimately, the failure of the state to live up to its international commitments, these individuals are directly challenging the rosy narrative Tashkent would prefer. 

Paradoxically, it was these exact monitors who paved the way for the lifting of the cotton boycott.

 Allison Gill, legal director at Global Labor Justice, which hosts the Cotton Campaign, said, “Uzbek Forum’s independent monitors played a critical role in driving an end to systemic state-imposed forced labor of children and adults in the Uzbek cotton sector… And their work is vital to further Uzbekistan’s progress towards meeting international standards in its cotton and textile industry.”

The work of independent monitors , conducted under great pressure especially during the reign of Islam Karimov, identified abusive labor practices and guided the Uzbek government in addressing these issue. But their independence is key; it’s what the international community trusts and relies on. It’s also what rankles the Uzbek government. 

In the Cotton Campaign’s press release regarding the harassment of Niyazova and Madrakhimova, Nate Herman, senior vice president of policy of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), explained, “To comply with rapidly emerging transnational supply chain human rights legislation, global brands need credible independent monitoring and reporting on labor rights at every level of their supply chains… Freedoms of speech, movement, and association are fundamental to a sustainable cotton and textile industry, and we urge the Uzbek government to ensure that independent monitors are allowed to investigate and report on labor rights without fear of reprisal.”