Turkmen labor rights activist Gaspar Matalaev walked free from prison on September 6, having served a spurious three-year sentence in full. He is now back home with his family.
Gaspar Matalaev independently documented the use of forced labor in the cotton harvest. He was arrested at home in Turkmenabat in northeast Turkmenistan during the night of October 4-5, 2016. He had frequently gone to the pick-up points and travelled out to the cotton fields. There he had asked doctors, teachers and other state employees why they were working in the fields and not in their classrooms or clinics. They were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t pick cotton. Gaspar also talked to schoolchildren who went to the fields either instead of their parents or as hired labor, helping the family finances to the detriment of their studies.
On October 2, turkmen.news published a photo report by Matalaev from Farap district under the headline “They bring people to cotton fields in the back of a truck, like sheep for sale”. Two days later at a meeting of the State Security Council, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov severely reprimanded the then minister of national security, Dovrangeldi Bayramov, for “the substandard performance of his duties and the weakening of oversight of the work of subordinate services”.
They came for Gaspar that night. While he was at the police department, National Security Ministry staffers tortured him with electric shocks to make him sign confessions to fraud and giving bribes. A month later a judge of the Turkmenabatcity court, Gulshirin Suhanberdieva, sentenced the activist to three years’ loss of liberty.
Over the three years of his imprisonment international human rights and trade union organizations spoke out in support of Matalaev, while over 100,000 people around the world signed a petition of the largest non-governmental organization against modern forms of slavery, Freedom United, calling for his immediate release.
In April 2018 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions ruled that Gaspar Matalaev’s arrest and deprivation of liberty were arbitrary, declaring that he had been deprived of the right to an independent and impartial trial and had been sentenced for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression. The Working Group recommended that the Turkmen authorities release Matalaev and accord him the right to compensation. However, the country’s authorities ignored all calls to release the activist.
In May 2019 the International Labor Rights Forum awarded Matalaev the Labor Rights Defenders award for his work documenting the problem of forced labor in Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest.
Seventy companies, including Adidas, Nike, Levi Strauss & Co, Amazon and H&M, have now signed the Turkmen Cotton Pledge, refusing to source cotton from Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, 80 investors in these companies with more than $860 billion assets under management have signed an investor statement, declaring that it is critical for companies and industry associations to do their part to stop Turkmen cotton from entering their supply chains.