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Uzbek campaigner against forced labour sent to psychiatric ward

by Scott Corben and Anna Pujol-Mazzini

A campaigner against forced labour in Uzbekistan's cotton fields was arrested ahead of an international meeting where she was scheduled to give evidence on human rights violations, a human rights group said on Friday 3rd March.

In a video recording published online, the veteran activist Elena Urlaeva said she was arrested on Wednesday, beaten by police and taken to a psychiatric clinic in Tashkent, the capital of the Central Asian country.

Urlaeva was due to attend a meeting on Thursday with the World Bank, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Organization of Trade Unions to discuss forced labour in the cotton industry.

"The policemen beat me, tearing my clothes, to prevent me from going to a meeting scheduled to take place in Tashkent to discuss the situation of the victims of forced labour in the cotton industry," Urlaeva said in the video.

A World Bank spokeswoman could not confirm any information regarding Urlaeva's arrest but a spokesman for the campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said they had spoken to Urlaeva's son to confirm the arrest.

It remained unclear whether Urlaeva had been released and Uzbek authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.

One of the few independent rights defenders in Uzbekistan, Urlaeva has regularly been beaten, arrested and sexually abused by Uzbek authorities, according to human rights groups.

They say Uzbekistan is concealing a state-orchestrated forced labour system that underpins its position as the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter. They cite regular arrests, intimidation and harassment of activists.

"Uzbekistan is unique in the world in that the government mobilized over a million of its own citizens to pick cotton under threat of punishment in abusive conditions for the profit of the state," Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for HRW told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He said the Uzbekistan government had been forced by "significant international pressure" to reduce the use of child labour in the country of 30 million people in the cotton industry.

"But the largely repressive forced labour of adults has remained if not increased," he said.

In early 2017, the ILO found that although Uzbekistan is making progress in eliminating child labour from its cotton industry, forced labour was still widespread.

It estimated that out of the country's 2.8 million cotton-pickers, a third were "non-voluntary."