(Washington, DC – March 23, 2017) Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) reporter Gaspar Matalaev remains imprisoned on false charges of fraud, despite his family’s hope that he would be released in December and again in February, when others charged with the same offense were given presidential pardons. Matalaev likely remains imprisoned due to his work monitoring state-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest.
Matalaev was arrested in the night of October 4, 2016, two days after his report on state-orchestrated forced labor of children and adults in Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest, accompanied by extensive photographic evidence, was posted on ATN’s website. He reportedly confessed to fraud charges while being tortured with electroshocks, though when he was arrested police told him it was related to photographs he posted on the internet.
“Matalaev’s continued persecution is clearly motivated by politics, as evidenced by the fact he is still being held for minor charges while others were released,” said Ruslan Myatiev, editor at and founder of ATN, which monitors forced and child labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton fields. “We have held off on public calls for his release because the Turkmen government has continuously assured us he would soon be set free. But that has not happened, surveillance of his family has increased, and we now feel compelled to ask for international assistance in bringing attention to his case and demanding he be able to return home.”
The 34-year-old Gaspar Matalaev is Myatiev’s relative, and one of the few independent monitors working undercover to reveal the state-run nature of forced and child labor during cotton harvests in one of the world’s most authoritarian countries. Turkmenistan is the ninth largest producer and seventh largest exporter of cotton in the world.
Each year the Government of Turkmenistan forces tens of thousands of workers from the public and private sector to pick cotton during the cotton harvest, or to pay a bribe or hire a replacement worker to pick cotton instead. This takes place under the threat of punishment including public censure, loss of wages, and termination of employment. The Government treats refusal to contribute to the cotton harvest as insubordination, incitement to sabotage, and even ‘contempt of the homeland.’ Officials are careful to not record refusal to pick cotton as the cause for termination of employment, making it impossible for workers to seek redress.
“The Government of Turkmenistan uses systematic coercion to produce cotton, every year forcing farmers to grow cotton to fulfil government quotas and forcing other citizens to pick it,” said Debbie McGrath, Head of Programme and Advocacy at Anti-Slavery International. “All Turkmen cotton comes with a high risk of being associated with forced labour and other human rights violations. Some brands have already stopped sourcing textiles from Turkmenistan because of that risk.”
On assignment from ATN, Gaspar Matalaev repeatedly visited cotton collection points and traveled to the fields to interview doctors, teachers and other public sector workers forced to pick cotton under threat of dismissal. He also spoke with children who had to miss school to replace their parents in the fields or work as hired workers to earn money.
“This is not the first time the Government of Turkmenistan has tried to silence opposition to its forced labor system of cotton production. Civil society activists and journalists seeking to document forced labor in the cotton harvest cannot operate openly and risk intimidation, harassment, arrest and detention,” said Abby McGill, International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) Director of Campaigns. ILRF is one of the Cotton Campaign founders.
The Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of human rights, labor, investor and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child labor and forced labor in cotton production, calls for Gaspar Matalaev’s immediate release, and for the governments and international organizations that work with Turkmenistan to use all channels available to pressure the Turkmen authorities to end his detention, as well as the harassment of other human rights defenders.
For more information on the Cotton Campaign, see: www.cottoncampaign.org