A court in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent has acquitted a leading human rights activist charged with defamation, ruling that the authorities’ criminal charges were unfounded in a decision that astounded rights groups.
Shuhrat Rustamov (left), a member of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, said that the court simply reached a just assessment of the facts and circumstances.
The ruling came as Obama administration officials prepare to negotiate an agreement with Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s authoritarian president, to permit thousands of military vehicles, and other equipment to transit from Afghanistan through Uzbek territory.
The U.S. diplomats will “walk a fine line between maintaining transit routes out of Afghanistan and expressing support for democratic principles,” Sanjar Umarov (right) writes in the Los Angeles Times:
The thing about fine lines, though, is that they often don’t exist. Washington needs to insist on specific and measurable steps to improve human rights — such as the immediate release of rights activists, journalists and opposition figures, and allowing civil society groups to operate in Uzbekistan — and be prepared to impose tough consequences if those conditions aren’t met.
Uzbekistan, which Freedom House counts among the world’s most repressive regimes, is also gaining notoriety for its monitoring and censorship of the internet. The regime has a dedicated Center for Monitoring Mass Communications for violations of Uzbek laws and cultural norms.
The country did experience a cycle of tentative openings to the West followed by repression, said Miriam Lanskoy, the National Endowment for Democracy’s senior program officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus. But a strategic partnership agreement with the U.S. was short-lived and the regime stifled domestic civil society and pressured foreign NGOs to leave even before the Andijon massacre.
After condemning the Andijon massacre of largely peaceful protesters in 2005, Umarov was drugged, beaten, charged with financial crimes and sentenced to over 14 years in prison.
“Finally, efforts by human rights groups and diplomats made Uzbek authorities realize that I was more trouble to them dead than alive,” he writes. “I was freed in late 2009 and received asylum in the United States, where I now live. I was lucky, but thousands of other prisoners are tortured and abused by Uzbek police and prison guards. Millions more in my country lack even the most basic rights and live in constant fear of their government.”
Uzbekistan is used to transport more than 50% of supplies from Central Asia to NATO troops in Afghanistan, notes Umarov, a former political prisoner, physicist and businessman. But strategic interests should not be allowed to subsume considerations of human rights.
U.S. officials have at times publicly called the Uzbek government to account over its abuses. But Karimov is getting mixed messages. I know my government: Lifting human rights restrictions at a time when activists and independent journalists are in jail, media are censored, civil society organizations are kept from operating and forced child labor is used on a massive scale is not the way to convince Karimov you’re serious about human rights.
Experience in the former Soviet Union region, particularly in Central Asia, highlights the importance of setting out human rights benchmarks as a condition for international engagement and unrelentingly pursuing their implementation, writes Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch:
One of the most disappointing developments in this regard was the EU’s failure to hold firm in demanding human rights improvements in Uzbekistan as a condition for dropping sanctions imposed on the government following the May 2005 killings by government forces of hundreds of civilian protesters in the city of Andijon.
The U.S. should comply with higher standards than the EU, writes Umarov, the leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan movement:
The events of the Arab Spring remind me that one day — soon, we hope — a change will come to my country. U.S. officials in Tashkent this week should make sure that when that day comes, my countrymen will see them as defending Uzbek human rights and not spending all their time seeking to appease the man who has oppressed them for so long.
Umarov cites forced child labor as one of Uzbekistan’s most prevalent rights violations, and Prime Minister Mirziyaev this week reportedly decreed that children should not be engaged in the upcoming cotton harvest.
“Similar decrees prior to the cotton harvest have been issued prior to cotton harvests for the past several years,” reports suggest, but they “seem primarily designed to try to convince foreign critics that Uzbekistan’s government is trying to improve its record on child labor.”
Uzbekistan’s $1 billion cotton industry is a major employer, notes the Solidarity Center:
Up to one third of the country’s nearly 15-million-member workforce labors on cotton farms. Instead of using machines to harvest cotton, Uzbekistan’s government uses children. Every autumn, state officials shut down schools and send students, together with their teachers, to the cotton fields. Tens of thousands of children, some as young as seven, are forced to undertake weeks of arduous labor for little or no pay. In some areas, they are compelled to apply toxic pesticides without appropriate protective gear. They must meet daily cotton quotas, and those who fail or refuse to take part can face corporal punishment and expulsion from school. Consequences for parents who protest also can be severe: their social benefits may be revoked, they may be shamed at public meetings, or their utilities may be cut off… The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based coalition of concerned organizations, led by the International Labor Rights Forum, which is pressuring the Uzbek government to put an end to these brutal practices. To highlight this issue in the global arena, the coalition convened a round-table, “Forced Labor and Child Labor in Central Asia: The Way Forward and the Role of the International Community.” Nearly 90 union, business, and government representatives attended the roundtable, which was held on June 11, 2009, during the International Labor Conference in Geneva. Participants discussed current conditions in the Central Asia region, the role of international businesses and trade unions, and international human rights perspectives, with a view to determining appropriate actions by the various stakeholders to end child labor in global cotton production.
- The Child Labor Coalition serves as a national network for the exchange of information about child labor; provides a forum and a unified voice on protecting working minors and ending child labor exploitation; and develops informational and educational outreach to the public and private sectors to combat child labor abuses and promote progressive initiatives and legislation.
- Download the ILRF report “We Live Subject to their Orders”: A Three-Province Survey of Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan’s 2008 Cotton Harvest