Case History: Elena Urlaeva
On 19 and 20 September 2015, human rights defenders Ms Elena Urlaeva and Mr Dmitry Tikhonov were arrested by police due to their documentation of the government’s widespread use of forced labour during this year’s cotton harvest.
Elena Urlaeva is the Head of the Human Rights Defenders Alliance of Uzbekistan and organises public demonstrations for the right to freedom of association and assembly. She also communicates with victims of human rights violations on an individual basis, partly due to the lack of human rights organisations in the region. Recently, Elena Urlaeva has been monitoring cases of the subjection of Uzbek civil servants and students to forced labour. The evidence gathered by her and her colleagues, at the Human Rights Defenders Alliance of Uzbekistan reveal a widespread and systematic state policy of forcing citizens to weed cotton fields in several regions of Uzbekistan.
On 20 September 2015, Human rights defender Dmitry Tikhonov was arrested by police in Angren city in the Tashkent region as he interviewed and took photographs and video recordings of those forced to work in cotton fields by the authorities. He documented 20 buses carrying teachers, other school staff and industrial workers to the cotton fields in Buka district. Following his arrest, he was taken to the Criminal Investigation Unit, where he was reportedly beaten and intimidated while in custody. He was informed that a chairman from the mahalla (district authority), on the day before his arrest, had reported to the police that Tikhonov had been making photos and interviews with people near the buses.
At the police station, a high-ranking police officer is reported to have struck Dmitry Tikhonov on the face and head with a stack of paper and threatened him with further physical violence. Other police officers, members of the district authorities and a medic who were present denied that this took place. Dmitry Tikhonov was further labelled 'an enemy of the country' by members of the police and district authorities. The human rights defender was subsequently forced to sign a statement denying any wrongdoing by the police. He was released five hours after his arrest.
The previous day, on 19 September 2015, police in the Kuyichirchik district of Tashkent arrested and interrogated Elena Urlaeva along with her husband, her 11-year-old son, and her friend Mr Sherzod Kamchibekov. The family had been invited to visit Sherzod Kamchibekov's farm for the weekend. Upon arrival, Elena Urlaeva had spoken with and photographed several women who informed her that they had been recruited by the district authorities to pick cotton. She also took photographs of the cotton fields. At approximately 6pm, a police officer arrived at Sherzod Kamchibekov's house and arrested Elena Urlaeva, her family and her friend and they were taken to the police station in Krasin village.
At the station, the police read a statement, allegedly from a local farmer, in which it was claimed that Elena Urlaeva had taken photographs of his field without his knowledge. Elena Urlaeva, her family and friend were each subsequently searched and interrogated. They were each breathalysed and the officers claimed that Elena Urlaeva had alcohol in her system, which she denies. The human rights defender and her family were released at 10pm. However, Sherzod Kamchibekov was held in custody overnight. Before his release the following day, he was accused of espionage and informed that he was prohibited from contacting Elena Urlaeva.
The human rights defenders have been subjected to ongoing police harassment as a result of their work to document and report on the use of forced labour in the country. On 31 May 2015, Elena Urlaeva was detained by police and subjected to violence after interviewing and photographing teachers and medical staff forced by Uzbek district authorities to work in cotton fields. However, to date, no charges have been brought against either of the human rights defenders.