Uzbek rights group says U.S. move endangers labor activists

ALMATY (Reuters) - The United States is giving Uzbekistan an excuse to crack down on activists who expose forced labor in the cotton industry by praising Tashkent for what it calls progress in this area, a local rights group said on Thursday.

In an attempt to improve its ties with Tashkent, the U.S. State Department elevated Uzbekistan from the bottom tier of violators in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report issued last July, although its analysts called forced labor "endemic" during the cotton harvest, according to a Reuters investigation.

This week, local media quoted Pamela Spratlen, the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, as saying there have been positive changes in the cotton sector.

Ezgulik said such comments could imply that "Uzbek activists, who monitored forced labor in the cotton harvesting campaign and published monitoring results, (were) liars."

Its statement added: "Following positive U.S. acknowledgement a small number of Uzbek activists would become slanderers in the eyes of the Uzbek government."

No one at the U.S. embassy was immediately available to comment.

Human rights groups say Tashkent is concealing a state-orchestrated forced labor system that underpins its position as the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter. They allege regular arrests, intimidation and harassment of activists.

Washington is seeking closer ties with Central Asia's most populous nation, looking for help in preventing the spread of Islamic militants, stabilizing Afghanistan and offsetting Russian influence in the region.

(Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)