In Depth

Uzbekistan activists beaten and detained

Uzbekistan's human rights crisis continues as campaigners says two more people have been unjustly arrested

Uzbekistan, a country with a long history of suspected human rights violations, has been in the headlines again this week for all the wrong reasons. With two activists detained and beaten and the government curtailing citizens' freedoms, the international community is beginning to pay closer to attention to the former Soviet state.

What's happening?

According to international rights monitor Human Rights Watch (HRW), two activists have been detained and beaten in the last week. Rights activist Dmitry Tikhonov was seized by Uzbek police after he was caught documenting incidents of forced labour in the country's cotton fields.

Similarly, Elena Urlaeva – another prominent rights activist operating in Uzbekistan – was arrested after documenting people picking cotton.

Why is there so much controversy over cotton?

For Uzbekistan, cotton is a major money-spinner. As one of the country's chief exports, the government regularly uses forced labour to process the annual harvest in September.

Campaigners and charities such as the Cotton Campaign have vocally opposed policies of forced labour during the cotton harvest but with limited success, partly due to the country's limited press freedoms. 

The Uzbek government relies on the forced labour of over one million people every year to bring in the country's cotton harvest, campaigners say. Teachers, medical workers, public employees and even children are made to work in the cotton fields. 

HRW says that when the country's annual cotton harvest begins each September "the government […] uses coercion, including intimidation and threats of loss of job, social welfare benefits, utilities, expulsion, and even prosecution to force people into the fields."

What is the political situation in Uzbekistan?

Islam Karimov, the current president of Uzbekistan, has held power since 1989. According to the BBC, the political system is highly authoritarian and the use of torture against members of the country's opposition is "systemic".  

Reporters Without Borders says that the government regularly punishes journalists for perceived crimes against the state. Foreign media sources have been all but expelled since an uprising in 2005 in Andijan, which resulted in a massacre of several hundred people. More recently the government has used the threat of Islamic extremism to curtail civil liberties. 

What does the UN say?

The United Nations has yet to formally comment on the latest developments in the country, but the UN's permanent mission to Uzbekistan has long held human rights reform on its agenda.

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