Tashkent (AsiaNews) - The Uzbek police arrested and subjected Elena Urlaeva to violence and sexual humiliation, because she had collected evidence of the exploitation of labor in the cotton fields. The woman, a 58 year old internationally known activist and chairman of the Human Rights Defenders' Alliance of Uzbekistan denounced the abuse herself.
She was detained on May 31 for 18 hours in Chinaz city jail (a few kilometers from the capital) after collecting a series of interviews and photographs that prove the exploitation even of teachers, as well as children, in the Central Asian country’s cotton fields.
Mrs. Urlaeva says she was conducted to the local police station, where officials forced her to hand over r the photographs and subjected her to electric shocks. Some paramedics then stripped her and forced her to undergo vaginal and rectal inspections.
The woman reported that she was carried to the hospital, where the doctors asked if he had received electric shocks and performed chest and stomach X-rays. Later she was brought back to the police station, where she also received threats against his family and activist colleagues. The police confiscated her camera and interview notes.
Steve Swerdlow, director of the department for Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, told Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty that the detention and abuse perpetrated against Urlaeva represent "the lowest point of the new government of Uzbekistan" and an attempt to "rape the civil society of the country." He warns: "We rarely see cases of brutality [in Uzbekistan] outside of prison that goes so far, and this demands an immediate, unequivocal response by international actors, including the United States and the European Union". Swerdlow told the site that Urlaeva was threatened by police, who wanted to publish pictures of her naked, taken during custody, on the internet. She now wants to press charges against the Chinaz police and doctors involved in her arrest. At the same time, she wants to continue working to "monitor forced labor" in Uzbekistan.
For more than twenty years Elena Urlaeva has been investigating the abuses of the government of President Islam Karimov - re-elected in March with a unanimous vote - against children, forced to work in the cotton fields during the harvest period, usually between mid-September and November , because their labor costs less than that of an adult.
In this case, however, the woman was also gathering evidence of exploitation of adult workers, especially that of civil servants and teachers, already denounced in April in a study by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF).
In the report, the NGO accuses President Karimov of forcing "over a million" Uzbeks to work in the cotton harvest, the most productive sector of the country. According to activists, during the last harvest season at least 17 people died and many more were injured. Moreover citizens are forced to work in inhuman conditions, for ten consecutive hours interrupted only by a brief pause. They live in makeshift homes often unheated, overcrowded with no drinking water or toilets.
Last year the World Bank started to grant loans to the agricultural sector, but conditioned its aid to the elimination of labor exploitation. In February, the finance organization decided to suspend the conditioning of loans. That decision sparked a wave of protests from organizations that deal with the defense of human rights and has led to a tightening of the government's position against activists and inspectors, as evidenced by the expulsion of a Russian inspector at the end March.