NEW YORK, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Uzbek government forced into labour more than one million people in the 2014 cotton harvest, while officials siphoned off profits at unprecedented levels, a rights group said on Monday.
More public service workers were forced to pick cotton in the two-month harvest than in previous years, putting a strain on essential services like health care and education, according to a report by Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF).
"Schools and health clinics cannot function with so many staff sent to pick cotton," said Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia.
"Students cannot receive the quality of education that they deserve, and medical care is inaccessible to people, even when they are very ill."
Until recently, the government of the former Soviet republic used children during the autumn harvest, but in 2012 it bowed to international pressure and adopted a policy barring the forced mobilisation of children, UGF said.
The Uzbek government denies using any kind of forced labour and officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
But according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, Uzbekistan has the second highest prevalence of slavery per head of population in the world.
The index by Walk Free Foundation, an Australia-based rights group, said around 1.2 million or nearly 4 percent of the population in the Central Asian nation were subjected to modern slavery, mostly during the annual cotton harvest.
Last year, 17 people died during the harvest, a higher toll than that of previous year, the UGF report said. Many were injured due to hazardous working conditions and a lack of clean water and sanitation. Some committed suicide.
The report said Uzbekistan runs one of the largest "state-orchestrated forced labour systems in the world," with government officials siphoning the bulk of the profits from cotton production, worth some $1 billion a year.
"At all levels of government, officials take their cut, and Uzbek citizens...are forced to pay or pick cotton through intimidation and fear," said Umida Niyazova, UGF's director.
President Islam Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron hand for more than two decades. He brooks no dissent and human rights bodies count his among the world's most repressive governments.
Last month he extended his term by five years in an election Europe's main security body criticised as undemocratic.
UGF said the Uzbek government failed to respond to invitations by 11 United Nations human rights monitors to conduct independent investigations into labour conditions.
It said the government only allowed a limited mission to monitor child labour by the International Labour Organization.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Ros Russell)
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