Today Turkmen labor rights activist Gaspar Matalaev was released from prison. He served his full three-year sentence, handed down on spurious charges, in response to his work to expose the use of forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton industry. Gaspar is currently at home, receiving the support of his family.
Gaspar, who independently monitored the use of forced labor during cotton picking, was detained on the night of October 4, 2016, at his home in Turkmenabad. Two days earlier, on October 2, turkmen.news published a photo report of Gaspar outlining his research based on interviews with schoolchildren and professionals including doctors, teachers and public servants forced to pick cotton under the threat of dismissal.
At a meeting of the State Security Council, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov [the President of Turkmenistan] announced to the then Minister of National Security Dovrangeldy Bayramov a severe reprimand “for improper performance of official duties, weakening control over the activities of subordinate services”.
That night they came for Gaspar. While in police custody, employees of the Ministry of Homeland Security under torture by electric shock, forced him to sign a confession of fraud and giving a bribe. A month later, a judge of the Turkmenabad city court Gulshirin Sukhanberdyeva sentenced the activist to three years in prison.
During all three years of his imprisonment, international human rights and trade union organizations spoke in support of Gaspar, and more than 100 thousand people around the world signed the petition of the world’s largest non-governmental organization against modern forms of slavery Freedom United.
Freedom United raised his case with the President of Turkmenistan; wrote to Turkmen ambassadors in Germany, France, Belgium, UK and USA ahead of the 2017 Ashgabat Asian Games; handed in the petition and demonstrated outside Turkmenistan’s Embassy in Washington D.C. in May of this year as well as highlighting his plight in international forums.
In May 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed its concern over Gaspar’s detention. The Working Group recommended that the Turkmen authorities release Gaspar and give him the right to compensation. He was also mentioned in Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report, and in the UN Human Rights Committee report of Turkmenistan. However, the authorities ignored all calls to release the activist.
In October 2018 top apparel brands signed a pledge to not source cotton from Turkmenistan until forced labor in the country’s cotton industry, which Gaspar reported on, has been eliminated. This follows the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency’s banning of the importation of Turkmen cotton into the U.S. in May of that year.
Currently, 70 companies – including Adidas, Nike, Levi Strauss & Co, Amazon and H&M – have signed the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, refusing to purchase cotton from Turkmenistan, and 84 investors of these companies with assets of almost $860 billion have signed a statement acknowledging the importance of preventing Turkmen cotton from entering supply chains whilst state-sponsored forced labor remains in place.
In May 2019, the International Labor Rights Forum awarded Gaspar Matalaev and turkmen.news the Labor Rights Defender Award for their work.
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