Interviews with cotton pickers

“We Were Subjected to a Full Investigation”

Police arrested the independent journalist Malohat Eshonkulova and the human rights activist Elena Urlaeva while they were visiting the Olot district on a fact-finding mission on the use of forced labour on October 9, 2016.

According to Malohat Eshonkulova, police officers insulted them, strip-searched them, and were only allowed to go home after a long interrogation when it had got dark.

Malohat Eshonkulova and the head of the Human Rights Alliance Elena Urlaeva went to the Olot district in Bukhara region to determine whether forced labour was being used to harvest cotton. They eventually identified the areas where students and public sector employees are being forced to pick cotton.

They had a chance to talk to students of the Business College in Olot district. However, after some warnings made by the unit leader, some students claimed that they were picking cotton voluntarily and that they were actually employees of a local farm. Teachers were also worried about being identified and punished for talking to Elena and Malohat.

According to Malohat, they were detained while traveling to the cotton camp where local teachers are accommodated. A large police squad was sent to arrest Malohat and Elena. The police operation resembled the arrest of serious criminals or an organised crime gang. Both of them were eventually brought to the local police station and detained without any food or water from 12.30 pm till late evening.

Elena and Malohat were subjected to a full investigation. Both were also strip-searched. According to Malohat, they were searched by a female police officer. “She checked our hair and even our ears”, – says Malohat. Elena Urlaeva, who suffers from health issues, asked the police to let her take some medication but police officers refused to give her water or food.

All photos and information proving the use of forced labour were confiscated. Their cell phones were also taken away. Police returned their phones later after Malohat and Elena were released, but all phone contacts had been erased.

Full version of the interview made by BBC:

Together with Elena Mikhailovna we went to the Olot district, in the Bukhara region to conduct monitoring and determine if forced labor was being used. We interviewed local residents to find out if doctors, teachers or college teachers were being forced to collect cotton, and, if so, in which regions. The local population told us about Qirshilom Village, which is located in a remote area.

 

What did you see there? Is forced labor being used in the field?

 

In the region we saw a cotton field in which students of the Business College were working. In fact we found that place by accident. On our way there we came across two youngsters riding bicycles. So, we simply asked them if they were students and if they were collecting cotton. They answered that they were students of the Business College and that they were going to the field to collect cotton.  We said we would be willing to accompany them to the field, to which they agreed. Then they took us to a cotton field where their fellow students were working. Everyone from colleges and medical institutions who has been mobilized to pick cotton is divided into units.

Each college is divided into squads of medical institutions. While we were talking to students, we encountered the Head of the Business College. He asked who we were. He wanted us to introduce ourselves. I told him that my name is Malohat Eshonkulova and that I would like to speak to the students. He asked if it would cause any problems. I let him know that it would be fine. He warned me again saying that he would not like to have any problems arising from it. So, we went in to the cotton field with the students afterwards. Once we started interviewing the college students, the unit leader told the students to introduce themselves as farm workers instead of saying that they were college students. However, we already had an interview proving that they are students. Also, the students who were interviewed afterwards said what their unit leader had asked them to say. “We have already graduated from college. We work for this farming company”, they said.

 

You reported that the police detained you. How did it happen?

 

After interviewing the students, we went to the cotton field where the doctors of reanimation department of Olot’s hospital for infectious diseases were picking cotton. It was really far away. It is located in the area close to the border with Turkmenistan. In order to get there, one must pass through sand, swamp and the area rented by “Lukoil”.

I was really surprised how smart the local government is. They brought doctors and teachers to cotton fields that neither the ILO nor the World Bank would ever reach. It is a restricted area. One needs to have permission to pass through the territory of Lukoil.

We made it through and reached the cotton field, collected information and on the way back, the police detained us. We were on our way to the office of Olot’s former collective farm.

We were detained by Olot’s district police at around 12:20 pm.

 

Where and how long did they detain you? How did they treat you?

 

They sent a big squad as if they were trying to arrest some big gang. There were several cars. They surrounded our car. There were only Elena Urlaeva, our driver and myself.  Onlookers were very surprised too. As soon as our driver got out the car to ask what was happening, they twisted his arms and took him to another car. They also obstructed us in the car in case we tried to run away. One of those police officers got into our car. He did not introduce himself and he did not ask who we were either. Obviously, they had been waiting for us for several hours while we went to talk with the doctors.

This is probably why the police officers were quite rude and angry. As I said, one of the police officers got into our car and drove us to the police station. After we arrived at the police station, they started talking to us in a very offensive way. They were giving commands in a very aggressive way: “Get out the car, come here, open your bag, take off your jacket”. They did not show us any respect. It was as if they had caught some important criminal or prostitute. There were several people. When I asked one of them to introduce himself, he told me that he was an official from the anti-terrorist department.

Afterwards, another man who was the chief of vice talked to us and then again another person came and talked to us. We were then detained in the police building from 12:20 – 12:30 until 20:00. Certainly there was no physical abuse, but we were insulted and humiliated.  They wanted to force us to write a letter of explanation in which we were supposed to explain why we had gone to border areas. They firmly insisted on it. It was not really clear what was going on before they took us to Bukhara. Perhaps they were conducting some kind of investigation or were simply waiting for it to get too late so that we couldn’t take photos. Then, they took us to the Bukhara – Tashkent transport hub. Since we were together with the police, no drivers wanted to take us to Bukhara. Besides, catering personnel had closed their canteens and left. After that they took us to Gijduvon. We hadn’t eaten since the day before. We pleaded with them for food. Elana Mikhailovna got sick. The ambulance was called and she was treated with an injection. Still, they didn’t even think about giving us a sip of water or food although we had been under arrest for more than 8 hours. They called a special escort along with a traffic warden and stopped a passing car at 22.00 and accompanied us with this escort group.

 

Where are you now?

 

Right now we are at home. We arrived early in the morning

 

Were there any other threats, insults or humiliations?

 

We only had a video recording that was erased. They also took our cameras. The most interesting part is that previously they had never checked that much. Finally they took notes, but this was different. Probably because of their boss who is more vigilant. They took away our notes. They also erased all the contacts from our phones and returned them. Finally they stripped us of our clothes and checked us, naked.

 

Was the person who searched you male or female? 

 

Female. She works at the department of interior affairs. She strip-searched us and checked us one by one.  She even checked through our hair.  Then we got dressed and the deputy head whispered something to that woman. She then came back and asked to check me again. I agreed and she checked my ears and hair once more. She also checked my shoes and trousers. She could not find anything. Then they took everything we had recorded, as well as pens and notebooks.

 

www.bbc.com

October 10, 2016