From “terrorist” to human rights defender: a conversation with Elena Urlaeva6 min read

As a so-called terrorist and enemy of the people according to the former Uzbek regime, long-time human rights defender Elena Urlaeva has also been called the bravest person in her native Uzbekistan more than once. Now that she is able to travel abroad for the first time in years, she has plenty to say about the changes that have been made under the new leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The world has taken notice of the new regime’s attempts at opening up this previously closed off country and is now questioning whether Uzbekistan might be headed for a thaw. Talking to Elena gives the feeling that this might be the case, and that we’ll soon be able to spot a heap of crocuses and coltsfoots on the ground, indicating that an Uzbek spring might be around the corner. Still, it usually takes a radical shift in climate to dissolve the permafrost.

Elena Urlaeva is a heavy weight when it comes to human rights activism. For the last two decades, she has been fighting to end forced labor in Uzbek cotton fields and other human rights abuses committed by the Uzbek state towards its people. Because of her work, she has been repeatedly detained, physically assaulted and forcibly sent to psychiatric clinics. In all of these instances, she was subjected to vile and degrading treatments that violated her human rights. Still, she has continued to fight for those rights for the Uzbek people.  

Activists, representatives and scholars met recently at the two-day Central Asia Days event in Stockholm, an annual gathering organized by the Central Asia Solidarity Groups where they participated in panel discussions, built networks and met with decision makers. During this time, I was able to sit down with Elena and talk to her personally about her work.

Forced to do the impossible

The fact that Elena was able to come to Stockholm in the first place was a sign of change unto itself; while she had once been blacklisted from being able to move freely, she made it to Stockholm amidst the Uzbek government slowly letting go of its iron grip. Along with forcing Elena to stay put, the government simultaneously continues to force many of its people to do something else against their will: hard labor. Advocating for the abolishment of forced labor in Uzbekistan is something that has made Elena both a hero and an enemy back home, even obtaining international recognition in her work.

Despite Uzbek president Mirziyoyev pledging to end the use of forced labor on several occasions, it still prevails in the country to this day. According to a report published by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on November 22nd this year, 2.6 million people worked this year’s harvest with 187,000 (about 7 percent) of them subjected to forced labor. Even though she actively works against forced labor practices, Elena said that she was still surprised upon learning about the numbers documented by the ILO this year.

In describing the situation, she said that this year saw many blue collar workers being relocated by bus and train to different parts of the country for field labor. Although in previous years teachers and medical personnel, not to mention children, were systematically mobilized during the harvest seasons (causing schools and health care clinics to close), the situation is still grim. People work under unbearable conditions, starting as early as four o’clock in the morning and finishing at ten in the evening. Once in the fields, they suffer from prolonged sun exposure or cold winters. Depending on the month, access to water can be scarce and the work can be strenuous; this year, each person had to meet a daily picking quota of 70 to 80 kilos.

While most of these people are state employees who are scared to lose their job if they don’t comply (a personal catastrophe in Uzbekistan where unemployment is rampant), this year also saw the forced mobilization of prisoners and military personnel. To an extent, these people are put in an even more vulnerable position than regular people; not only are they forced to meet a higher daily picking quota of 100 kilo per person, something that Elena said is “humanly impossible” to achieve, but they also lack access to the newly established goryachaya liniya (hotline), and the virtual reception hall, a public platform launched by the government as for reporting problems and governmental misconduct. When confronting the people responsible for mobilizing the podpolkovnik (lieutenant colonel) and kursanty (military cadets), she was told that they were not involved in the cotton picking, but rather conducting military exercises. However, being able to interview one of the lieutenant colonels, she was able to verify that this was not true. Instead, they were instructed to wear regular clothes as a disguise.

From “terrorist” to human rights defender

Calling this hotline, in some cases, has resulted in government inspectors to arrive at the site as quickly as 40 minutes after the complaint has been made. While monitoring the fields, documenting the practices, interviewing people and taking photographs, she said that she can’t help the people who approach her and ask for assistance. However, she continues to file letters of complaints to the government and encourage people to call the hotline. Additionally, she uses all of the material that she gathers to put together reports that are distributed to international human rights organizations and embassies. This comprises the core of her human rights work, which has contributed to international companies boycotting Uzbek cotton.   

Indeed, her work has even led to channels of dialogue; together with other human rights activists and members of civil society, she has been invited to the government to talk about these issues. This is a big change vis-a-vis the previous government, who labelled her as a terrorist and enemy of the people. She is recognized as a defender of human rights by the new government and receives access to monitor the cotton fields. For the last two years, she said that she has not been harassed while doing her work or put under constant surveillance in the field. Activists are now free to even organize protests and demonstrations without police interference. She also mentioned that she is allowed into the courtrooms and can document cases against innocent people who have been put on trial, always bringing a camera along with her.

What’s next?

At first glance, it seems like the new regime is not only focusing on changing the economic and judicial system (You can read more about this in my previous piece: Uzbekistan post-Karimov: a real thaw or just a case of black ice?), but that the human rights situation is somewhat improving, even though Uzbekistan still has a long way to go. In the end, the country still employs torture in prisons and detention centers, blackmails prosperous businessmen and struggles with severe domestic violence issues against women. Yet when asked about the country’s future, she said that it depends on when and how people start demanding their rights. Fear still runs strong among the people, but Elena feels positive about the changes made thus far. The new changes made by the government show that it is possible for Uzbeks to take a stand, but time will tell how far the people are able to go. In the end, it will depend on how much the government is willing to allow.

Amanda Sonesson holds a BA in Economic History at Stockholm University and has previously lived, studied and worked in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Currently she is studying in the CEERES program hosted by University of Glasgow, Scotland, focusing on gender issues, democracy, politics and society in Russia and Central Asia. Additionally she owns a secret collection of Putin memorabilia and loves everything (post) Soviet.