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Another Deadly Cotton Harvest in Uzbekistan, Serbia Flooded with Asylum-Seekers

Plus, a whistle-blower says VAT fraud costs Hungary billions each year, and Latvia’s prime minister resigns over supermarket disaster.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Alexander Silady, and Martha Tesema 28 November 2013

1. Another deadly harvest in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields


Despite increased international attention on human rights violations during Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest this year, monitors continue to find “overwhelming evidence of systematic, state-orchestrated forced labor,” according to Cotton Campaign, which works to end forced and child labor in the trade.


A teenager picks cotton in Uzbekistan in October. Photo from the annual review of the cotton harvest by Cotton Campaign.


In a 27 November report, the group said at least 11 people died during this year’s harvest as a result of the forced-labor system. Among them were a 6-year-old boy who was suffocated by a load of cotton after falling asleep in a trailer as his mother worked in the field and a 16-year-old who died of a heart attack.


“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Cotton Campaign’s Matt Fischer-Daly told the Toronto Star.


The watchdog group conducted its research via anonymous interviews and observations during the harvest and inspection of government documents and media reports.


Cotton Campaign says the government forced children aged 15 to 17 to pick cotton under threat of expulsion from school. Likewise, school administrators faced losing their jobs if they did not mobilize teams of students to work in the fields, and parents were required to pledge their children’s labor in order to register them for school, the report says.


In some regions, children as young as 10 were forced earlier in the year to plant and tend cotton fields and to harvest them in the fall.


Adult employees of private businesses and government agencies were forced to pick cotton for fear of losing their jobs, and those on welfare faced losing their benefits if they did not work in the fields.


The government forces farmers to plant cotton, then buys their crops at prices it sets. After a boycott by many Western retailers of cotton from Uzbekistan, the crop goes mainly to domestic mills and those in China, Bangladesh, Russia, and South Korea.


In October, Tashkent signed contracts worth more than $1 billion with companies seeking to buy Uzbek cotton, up 66 percent from last year, Radio Free Europe reported. Those proceeds go into a fund and “only the highest level government officials have access and knowledge of how the proceeds are used,” according to the Cotton Campaign report.


This year, a 63-year-old farmer died of a heart attack the morning after being beaten by a local official for arriving late to a cotton planning meeting. In one region, authorities did not allow farmers to participate in weighing their own crops so they could not see how much the government owed them. Some farmers fled Uzbekistan to avoid arrest after failing to meet their quotas, and one committed suicide, according to the report.


2. Middle Eastern unrest sending thousands into Serbia, fueling backlash


Hundreds of people formed a human blockade in a Belgrade suburb 27 November to prevent authorities from busing in asylum-seekers from a packed shelter in central Serbia, Radio Free Europe reports.


Around 300 people from Africa and the Middle East have been living outdoors in a Serbian forest, even in snowy conditions, Reuters reports. The news agency says the number of asylum-seekers in Serbia has skyrocketed from 52 in 2008 to almost 4,000 this year. The country’s two asylum centers can accommodate 250.


Feeding that increase is turmoil in the Middle East, particularly the civil war in Syria, according to Reuters.


“A few have tents, while others have taken over woodland shacks. Many have only clothing to cover themselves at night and log fires for heat and cooking,” the news agency writes, adding that its reporters “found one man living in an electricity sub-station.”


Reuters says refugees are funneling through the countries of the former Yugoslavia in an attempt to reach Hungary, a member of the passport-free Schengen zone. From there, they can move freely to other countries in the zone, which heavily overlaps with the European Union.


The residents who stopped the busload of migrants this week said they “feared for their safety” if the asylum-seekers were allowed to come there, RFE reports.


The EU has offered to fund a third shelter in Serbia but the effort has been thwarted by citizens’ protests, according to Reuters.


Rados Djurovic, executive director of Serbia’s Asylum Protection Center, told the Focus News Agency that a temporary center will open in the next week near Belgrade and plans are in the works for another facility, also near the capital, to accommodate 500 people and to open “sometime next year.”


3. Ex-tax official’s fraud claims spark political firestorm in Hungary


A whistle-blower who used to work in Hungary’s tax and customs agency has set off a political storm in Budapest with charges that officials have allowed massive value-added-tax fraud.


Andras Horvath, a former tax-collection supervisor, said the tax evasion costs the government about 1 trillion forints ($4.5 billion) each year, The Budapest Times reports. Horvath said he brought cases of major corporate tax evasion to the attention of his supervisors, who either did not act or removed him from those cases. As a result, he said, he resigned and went public with the problem.


Citing an interview with Hungarian news website, The Budapest Times reports that Horvath said his former agency, known as NAV, “negotiated every year with some major taxpayers on the amount that they must pay, and then they would not pay one forint more. … Worse, he alleges, several hundred NAV employees know what is going on, including many senior employees. Horvath said the tax evasion is most widespread in the food industry, where almost all products are subject to VAT.”


Horvath, a former member of the ruling Fidesz party, said he alerted senior government officials to the issue two years ago but nothing came of it, according to Eva Balogh, a former Yale history professor who writes the Hungarian Spectrum blog. This week, Fidesz members of parliament refused to attend a subcommittee hearing on the allegations, reports.


Balogh writes that NAV is in the process of pressing charges against Horvath. The agency, “either on its own or because of prodding from above, immediately announced an internal investigation” of Horvath’s allegations,” she writes. “Keep in mind that NAV has 23,000 employees, and yet over the weekend in only two days’ time (November 9-10) the ‘investigation’ turned up nothing.”


The scandal could taint the opposition Socialists as well as Fidesz, as they have refused to support the formation of a special parliamentary committee to investigate Horvath’s claims. The Socialists say they will not join any effort supported by the far-right Jobbik party, which does back a probe. But Balogh notes that Socialist lawmakers have “signed several documents on which one could find Jobbik names as well” and their refusal this time could encourage voters to consider them just as corrupt as Fidesz.


4. Deadly Riga store collapse brings fall of Latvian government


Latvia’s prime minister has resigned and thereby dissolved his government in the wake of last week’s catastrophe at a Riga supermarket that left at least 54 people dead, the BBC reports.


Valdis Dombrovskis
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, of the center-right Unity party, said 27 November, “Considering the tragedy and all related circumstances ... a new government is needed that has the clear support of parliament.”


Dombrovskis’ party holds 20 of the Latvian parliament’s 100 seats, and new parliamentary elections are not scheduled until October 2014.


President Andris Berzins, who last week called the Maxima supermarket collapse “murder,” is reportedly considering nominating a new cabinet. The death toll from the accident is the highest of any peacetime disaster in Latvian history.


A government spokesman told AFP that “the government takes political responsibility for the tragedy.” Investigators are looking into whether inferior materials were used for the building or construction codes were violated, and whether corruption played a role in the disaster, among other lines of inquiry.


A rooftop garden was being built at the time of the collapse on 21 November. Dombrovskis announced the following day that a criminal investigation had been launched into possible building code violations.  


5. Russia prosecuting ex-defense chief over resort works


Former Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov is facing charges of criminal negligence for using the military for construction work at a resort owned by a relative, according to RIA Novosti.


Anatoly Serdyukov
Russia’s Investigative Committee said 28 November that while serving as defense minister Serdyukov involved soldiers in construction works at the Zhitnoe leisure complex near the Caspian Sea, worth a reported $4.5 million and owned by his brother-in-law. Serdyukov faces a maximum sentence of three months.


“Instead of serving [their country] and studying military science, soldiers were planting poplars in the Astrakhan steppe,” said the Investigative Committee. It estimated the damage to government coffers at 56 million rubles ($1.7 million), according to RIA Novosti. Initially expected to close in September, the case against Serdyukov has been extended until January. 


Although this is the first criminal case opened against him, Serdyukov was embroiled in corruption scandals concerning the sale of state assets on his watch at the Defense Ministry. He was fired in November 2012. A February audit said the ministry had lost 117 billion rubles ($3.9 billion) through overspending and contracting irregularities.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Alexander Silady and Martha Tesema are TOL editorial interns.
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