Uzbek Fruit Farm Squeezed Out

Five-year sentence meted out to small-time farmer shows power of local bosses.

Uzbek Fruit Farm Squeezed Out

Five-year sentence meted out to small-time farmer shows power of local bosses.

Monday, 21 February, 2005
Human rights activist Nigmatulla Nazaraliev protesting in support of the jailed farmer.

When Akrom Mahmudov tried to stop a local farm boss from taking over his private orchard he ended up in jail serving a five-year jail sentence.

The case highlights the plight of small-scale private farmers in Uzbekistan who face opposition from the big collectives left over from the Soviet Union.

Thirty-year-old Mahmudov set up his orchard in the Kashkadarya region of southern Uzbekistan, by leasing a plot of land from the state under an agricultural reform set in train by the government. The collectives still own large tracts of land and produce the major cash crops like cotton. But private farmers are allowed to operate on the fringes. President Islam Karimov has even described them as “the hope of the economy”.

Mahmudov grows apples and sells them on the open market. One day in early May, the head of the Kitab district collective farm, Zarip Burhanov, turned up at Mahmudov’s orchard accompanied by 20 policemen. They proceeded to chop the blossoming branches off his apple trees.

IWPR was told by family members that when they tried to intervene, Burhanov punched Mahmudov’s 75-year-old mother in the face.

Mahmudov was later arrested and charged with the criminal offence of “theft through appropriation or squandering another person’s property placed in the care of the accused”. The accusation was that he had concealed some of his 2002 harvest and sold seven tons of apples without Burhanov’s knowledge.

In court, Mahmudov’s lawyer said that by law his client’s private farm was accountable only to the local government body – it was the latter, not the collective farm, that leased the land to him. Mahmudov argued he had the right to sell his fruit as he pleased, because his contract obliges him to pay sales tax only to the government.

Despite this defence, the Kamashi district court found him guilty on May 17 and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Nigmatulla Nazaraliev, representing the Uzbek branch of the International Society for Human Rights, said, “It was totally arbitrary behaviour by the court. I was shocked when on occasion the accused was unable to attend court and judge Serob Iskanov was unsure whether to continue the hearing. But Zarip Burhanov ordered him to go on with it – and he obeyed.”

During the trial Burhanov showed his contempt for anyone who stands in his way. “I don’t recognise you,” he told the judge, “I am right, and the land is mine.”

Mahmudov is going to appeal, but in the meantime Burhanov has seized his orchard and re-incorporated it into his collective farm’s lands.

This high-handed behaviour is typical of the problems Uzbek farmers have faced as local leaders block their rights to build up private businesses. Kurban Razikov, a former agricultural scientist, told IWPR that the main problem is the lack of a law allowing farmers to buy and own plots, rather than lease them. That makes them vulnerable to losing their land.

“We remain at a crossroads where there are no clear laws and rules, which is the reason for the current situation in agriculture,” he said.

The legal vacuum has allowed regional powerbrokers and heads of large collective farms to re-establish their control and squeeze out the independents. Since the private plots are located on collective farmlands, the big bosses are reluctant to recognise their right to exist.

Although Burhanov refused to give IWPR an interview, he spoke to our reporter last autumn and made it plain that he dislikes farmers who set themselves up as competition.

“If I’ve got a lot of private farms on my farmland, who will work for the collective farm? Collective lands are reduced because of private farms,” he said.

One tactic local farm officials commonly use is restricting the independents’ access to shared resources such as water and electricity. Another is using compliant local courts to prosecute private producers for alleged violations of the stringent government regulations on sales.

In this case Burhanov appears to have employed both practices. The only other private farm in the areas was confiscated earlier this year, and owner Abdurahmon Utaev was been warned he could end up like Mahmudov if he attempted to return to his land.

Burhanov is free to act in this manner because he is said to enjoy the protection of Ismail Jurabekov, one of the most powerful men in Uzbekistan. Jurabekov is currently the president’s adviser on agriculture, but his real influence is much wider, as a leading member of the Samarkand “clan” or political grouping.

IWPR was told that Burkhanov had boasted that he was “Jurabekov’s man” and respected no other authority, so it telephoned the politician’s aide, Tulkin Farmonov.

“There are no ties of a commercial nature or of kinship between Jurabekov and Burhanov. Mr Jurabekov treats all agricultural workers equally,” Farmonov responded, adding that he had heard of the Mahmudov case.

When IWPR asked whether he planned to investigate Burhanov’s claim that he was under the protection of Jurabekov, there was no answer, just a long silence.

Tulkin Karaev and Yadgar Turlibekov are independent journalists in Karshi.

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