Yearly archives: 2003

BBC Radio 4 – Today Programme – The Craig Murray Affair

BBC Radio 4 – Today Programme – The Craig Murray Affair

Craig Murray is now preparing to return to his post, after reports on this programme and in the press.

According to the Foreign Office, he has always been our ambassador to Uzbekistan, temporarily absent on sick leave. His friends though believe there was an attempt to force him out, after his outspoken criticism of his Uzbek hosts, which reportedly irritated the US, now a strategic partner of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan was Craig Murray’s first job as ambassador. Top of his year’s Foreign Office intake, he was a veteran of many difficult postings. He was known as a hardworking, talented, but forthright diplomat. From the moment he was formally accredited in the Uzbek capital, he drew attention to human rights abuses in the country. Uzbekistan retains one of the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union: constantly criticised by agencies like Human Rights Watch.

In private correspondence within the Foreign Office, Craig Murray drew parallels between the record of Uzbekistan and that of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But it was his comments in October last year which drew most attention.

Before an audience of Uzbek dignitaries and other foreign diplomats, at the opening of the American-backed ‘Freedom House’ foundation in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, he launched a full scale attack. He spoke of prisoners tortured by being boiled alive. Of thousands detained for political or religious reasons. And he said that Uzbekistan was not a functioning democracy, nor making sufficient steps towards that.

According to those who were there, the American ambassador looked uncomfortable. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry summoned Craig Murray on a Sunday to explain himself. But to human rights activists like Talib Jakubov, this was support they’d only dreamt of. “It was like a flash of lightning” he told me in Tashkent. “It made the American ambassador’s speech look pale, watery by comparison”.

Over the next 10 months, Craig Murray continued to mention human rights at every opportunity, to meet activists, and the families of those in prison. But as he came to the end of a month’s leave this summer, he was abruptly called back to London.

There, friends say, he was told he had a week to resign or be recalled. He was told of possible disciplinary charges arising from his conduct.

Craig Murray had inherited a troubled embassy. The Foreign Office had sent out investigators to look into difficulties with some members of staff, not the ambassador himself. They apparently heard rumours about Craig Murray’s behaviour.

The ambassador’s friends in Tashkent freely admit he had an unconventional approach to his job: they say he travelled far more than most diplomats in Uzbekistan, he liked to talk to people, and he would often stay out late into the night doing just that.

Eric Reynolds, a British businessman in Tashkent, told me that he’d often shared a pint with Craig Murray in the early hours of the morning. “He could make a pint last an hour”, he told me. “He wasn’t a fast drinker, never a heavy drinker”.

Local journalists say they’d heard gossip about the ambassador’s alleged private life. Human rights activists believe such rumours were deliberately spread by the agencies of the Uzbek government.

The leading human rights lawyer Surat Ikramov told me he’d heard from his own government sources that the Uzbek Foreign Ministry were running such a campaign. He was so concerned that in June he wrote to Jack Straw to try to warn him. The letter was hand carried to London, but the Foreign Office say they have no record of receiving it.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry strongly deny any such activity and there is no evidence to connect them to the rumours. They say only that they are sorry the ambassador is unwell.

The deputy foreign minister said he believes Uzbekistan is generally misunderstood, especially in western Europe. He told me of improvements in the prison system and a drop in infant mortality. He said “we know we have problems … we are not dumb,” but he said Uzbekistan welcomed criticism when accompanied by concrete help (he cited American aid to train prison and police staff). However when asked about the prisoners boiled alive, the cases singled out by Craig Murray, he claimed that other prisoners in the same jail had confessed to the murders. Craig Murray had commissioned an independent report from photographs of the body before coming to his own conclusion.

Friends say after being given the ultimatum by London, Craig Murray suffered a sudden depressive illness. He was “medivac-ed” (evacuated for medical reasons) back to London for treatment at the expense of the Foreign Office. Friends say he has now completely recovered.

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The Guardian – A good man in Tashkent

The Guardian – A good man in Tashkent (by John Bowis MEP)

Earlier this year I led the delegation of MEPs to Uzbekistan. We were given one of the best and most honest briefings I have ever received from a British diplomat (Tony Blair’s new friend, October 28). Our ambassador, Craig Murray, believed he should speak out when he was convinced of human rights abuses. He was right to do so, even if that meant treading on local and transatlantic toes.

My experience is that the Uzbek government does listen to criticism, firmly and fairly made. They made it clear we could visit any place and meet any people we chose. So we were able to see grim prison conditions and to hear from human rights NGOs. But two days after our return, Ruslan Sharipov, a journalist critical of the government, was arrested and imprisoned on the grounds of his sexuality and we are still aware of political prisoners and a muzzled press.

Now we hear of turmoil at the British embassy in Tashkent and the ambassador being put under enormous pressure, and then summoned home for “treatment”. In the parliament last week, I issued a habeas corpus challenge to the British government. I repeat the challenge I made to the foreign secretary: restore a good man to his post. The gainers will be the Uzbek people, but also the good name of British diplomacy.

John Bowis MEP

Conservative, London

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The Guardian – Tony Blair’s new friend

The Guardian – Tony Blair’s new friend (by George Monbiot)

The British and US governments gave three reasons for going to war with Iraq. The first was to extend the war on terrorism. The second was to destroy its weapons of mass destruction before they could be deployed. The third was to remove a brutal regime, which had tortured and murdered its people.

If the purpose of the war was to defeat terrorism, it has failed. Before the invasion, there was no demonstrable link between al-Qaida and Iraq. Today, al-Qaida appears to have moved into that country, to exploit a new range of accessible western targets. If the purpose of the war was to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before he deployed them, then, as no such weapons appear to have existed, it was a war without moral or strategic justification.

So just one excuse remains, and it is a powerful one. Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant. While there was no legal argument for forcibly deposing him on the grounds of his abuse of human rights, there was a moral argument. It is one which our prime minister made repeatedly and forcefully. “The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam,” Tony Blair told the Labour party’s spring conference in February. “Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane.”

Had millions of British people not accepted this argument, Tony Blair might not be prime minister today. There were many, especially in the Labour party, who disagreed with his decision but who did not doubt the sincerity of his belief in the primacy of human rights.

There is just one test of this sincerity, and that is the consistency with which his concern for human rights guides his foreign policy. If he cares so much about the welfare of foreigners that he is prepared to go to war on their behalf, we should expect to see this concern reflected in all his relations with the governments of other countries. We should expect him, for example, to do all he can to help the people of Uzbekistan.

There are over 6,000 political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. Every year, some of them are tortured to death. Sometimes the policemen or intelligence agents simply break their fingers, their ribs and then their skulls with hammers, or stab them with screwdrivers, or rip off bits of skin and flesh with pliers, or drive needles under their fingernails, or leave them standing for a fortnight, up to their knees in freezing water. Sometimes they are a little more inventive. The body of one prisoner was delivered to his relatives last year, with a curious red tidemark around the middle of his torso. He had been boiled to death.

His crime, like that of many of the country’s prisoners, was practising his religion. Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan, learned his politics in the Soviet Union. He was appointed under the old system, and its collapse in 1991 did not interrupt his rule. An Islamist terrorist network has been operating there, but Karimov makes no distinction between peaceful Muslims and terrorists: anyone who worships privately, who does not praise the president during his prayers or who joins an organisation which has not been approved by the state can be imprisoned. Political dissidents, human rights activists and homosexuals receive the same treatment. Some of them, like in the old Soviet Union, are sent to psychiatric hospitals.

But Uzbekistan is seen by the US government as a key western asset, as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq once was. Since 1999, US special forces have been training Karimov’s soldiers. In October 2001, he gave the United States permission to use Uzbekistan as an airbase for its war against the Taliban. The Taliban have now been overthrown, but the US has no intention of moving out. Uzbekistan is in the middle of central Asia’s massive gas and oil fields. It is a nation for whose favours both Russia and China have been vying. Like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is a secular state fending off the forces of Islam.

So, far from seeking to isolate his regime, the US government has tripled its aid to Karimov. Last year, he received $500m (?300m), of which $79m went to the police and intelligence services, who are responsible for most of the torture. While the US claims that its engagement with Karimov will encourage him to respect human rights, like Saddam Hussein he recognises that the protection of the world’s most powerful government permits him to do whatever he wants. Indeed, the US state department now plays a major role in excusing his crimes. In May, for example, it announced that Uzbekistan had made “substantial and continuing progress” in improving its human rights record. The progress? “Average sentencing” for members of peaceful religious organisations is now just “7-12 years”, while two years ago they were “usually sentenced to 12-19 years”.

There is little question that the power and longevity of Karimov’s government has been enhanced by his special relationship with the United States. There is also little question that supporting him is a dangerous game. All the principal enemies of the US today were fostered by the US or its allies in the past: the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Wahhabi zealots in Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein and his people in Iraq. Dictators do not have friends, only sources of power. They will shift their allegiances as their requirement for power demands. The US supported Islamist extremists in Afghanistan in order to undermine the Soviet Union, and created a monster. Now it is supporting a Soviet-era leader to undermine Islamist extremists, and building up another one.

So what of Tony Blair, the man who claims that human rights are so important that they justify going to war? Well, at the beginning of this year, he granted Uzbekistan an open licence to import whatever weapons from the United Kingdom Mr Karimov fancies. But his support goes far beyond that. The British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has repeatedly criticised Karimov’s crushing of democracy movements and his use of torture to silence his opponents. Like Roger Casement, the foreign office envoy who exposed the atrocities in the Congo a century ago, Murray has been sending home dossiers which could scarcely fail to move anyone who cares about human rights.

Blair has been moved all right: moved to do everything he could to silence our ambassador. Mr Murray has been threatened with the sack, investigated for a series of plainly trumped-up charges and persecuted so relentlessly by his superiors that he had to spend some time, like many of Karimov’s critics, in a psychiatric ward, though in this case for sound clinical reasons. This pressure, according to a senior government source, was partly “exercised on the orders of No 10”.

In April, Blair told us that he had decided that “to leave Iraq in its brutalised state under Saddam was wrong”. How much credibility does this statement now command, when the same man believes that to help Uzbekistan remain in its brutalised state is right?

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The ‘war on terror’ must not become a cover to support repressive regimes

The ‘war on terror’ must not become a cover to support repressive regimes, Robin Cook, Independent, 24 October 2003

I do not know whether, as the press have claimed all week, our ambassador to Uzbekistan has been “recalled”, but I remember Craig Murray as a conscientious and earnest diplomat. I am only too familiar with his dilemma on how to maintain civil relations with a very uncivil regime.

Uzbekistan is a challenging case for human rights advocates. Amnesty International sums up its record with the blunt word, “dire”. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has reported that its use in Uzbekistan is “systematic”. The Foreign Office, to its credit, provides a frank exposure of the failings of the regime in the recent edition of its Human Rights Annual Report, which Labour started publishing on taking office. The section on Uzbekistan registers the case of two prisoners who were tortured to death with boiling water, and is illustrated with a photograph of inmates at a “notoriously brutal” prison. Our ambassador’s excellent speech on the need for Uzbekistan to improve its standards is reprinted as an annexe to the Annual Report (which suggests approval rather than reprimand from his ministers).

To describe the practices in such countries as human rights violations does not rise to the occasion. We are not contemplating simply a legalistic breach of a multilateral code, but brutal abuse of individual persons, who will have suffered excruciating agony and cowed in terror from the next interrogation. Silence is not an option for the international community in the face of the screams of the victims of torture. In Britain we enjoy the right to express ourselves freely without fear that we or our families will be imprisoned and beaten for our views. As Tony Blair never tires of reminding us, with rights come responsibilities, and the high standard of human rights that we enjoy puts on us a special responsibility to speak up for those peoples who are denied liberty.

Repressive regimes tend to resent criticism from outside as much as dissent from the inside. They are given to pleading that the West is committing a form of cultural imperialism when it imposes its standards of liberty, free speech and popular democracy. This is self-serving nonsense. There is no evidence that the peoples, rather than the governments, of any country regard torture and arbitrary imprisonment as an important part of their national heritage. As Kofi Annan memorably observed, African mothers also weep when their sons or daughters are killed or maimed. We see their tears on television in our living rooms. We are witnesses to their suffering, and if we stay silent we become accomplices in their oppression.

We can also make a practical difference as well as a rhetorical statement. In the case of Uzbekistan, the Foreign Office is advising on judicial reform, training judges and funding the recording of court proceedings. The next stage is to broaden the investigative capacity of the police, who now rely on confessions in police custody, which in turn provides the incentive for brutality.

I never met anyone in my years as Foreign Secretary who was prepared to defend torture as a valid government method. Regrettably I came across many in the media who were prepared to mutter that it was none of our business what governments did to their own citizens and our job was not to upset the people with power. This is profoundly short-sighted. It is a welcome feature of the modern world that repressive regimes are on the retreat, partly because of the incompatibility of an information economy with mediaeval repression. Those foreign powers who have supported human rights will be better able to do business with the more representative political leaders who displace authoritarian governments.

I remember visiting Nigeria shortly after the death of General Sani Abacha had opened the path for a return to democracy. Our high commissioner there had gone straight from being the least favoured foreign diplomat, because of our trenchant criticism of Abacha’s brutality and corruption, to being one of the most influential on the new authorities, for exactly the same reason. Some day the ageing military junta in Burma will fall and Britain will be in a stronger position for the support our embassy has given to Aung San Suu Kyi. We should support human rights because it is the right course to take, but in the long run what is right in principle usually turns out to be right in practice.

This brings us back to Uzbekistan, which justifies its repression as a necessary tool against Islamic militants. We should not be romantic about the nature of militant dissent. If fundamentalists were successful in sweeping aside the present regime, they would not replace it with an inclusive government promoting individual liberty and respecting freedom of speech. But they will not be beaten by violence and repression, which only provide them with more martyrs. Nor does the existence of a fundamentalist movement justify the Karimov regime in suppressing bona fide critics of their human rights record: that only gives their population fresh reason to fear the regime and welcome its removal. If the government of Uzbekistan really wants to isolate the terrorists, it needs to make a common cause with those in their nation who want a more open society than either President Karimov offers at present or the fundamentalists hope to impose in the future.

There is a similar message for the Bush administration to ponder. It is rumoured that the British ambassador to Tashkent has fallen out of favour not so much because he upset the government of Uzbekistan, but because that in turn upset the government of the US, which has secured a base from which to prosecute its operations in Afghanistan. We have been here before. Nothing more discredited the conduct of the West in the Cold War than its willingness to form alliances with reactionary regimes around the globe to whom freedom and democracy were strange and threatening concepts. It would be a tragedy if the Bush administration were to revert to turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in order to find allies in its War on Terror.

It would also be a political blunder. We will only beat the terrorists if we stand by the values of liberty, tolerance and non-violence which are the strengths of the open societies they want to destroy. We provide grist to the propaganda mill of the fundamentalists if we allow ourselves to be associated with regimes who have as little compunction as the terrorists in using violence for their own ends. Terrorism will not be beaten by security measures alone and must be defeated politically.

None of this means that making progress on human rights is going to be easy. But there are no voices more irritating than the world-weary who argue that because we cannot make the world perfect we should give up trying to make it better. The growing interdependence of countries gives us ever greater opportunities for economic leverage and political persuasion of repressive regimes. If we refuse to take these opportunities, we ourselves share responsibility for the agony and the terror of the tortured victims of the regimes with whom we connive without protest.

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The Guardian – Ambassador accused after criticising US

The Guardian – Ambassador accused after criticising US (by David Leigh, Nick Paton Walsh, Ewen MacAskill)

Britain’s ambassador in Tashkent, who mysteriously returned to this country last month on temporary sick leave, was the victim of threats from Downing Street related to his outspoken views on US foreign policy in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

Inquiries by the Guardian have discovered that Craig Murray, one of Britain’s youngest ambassadors, was subsequently called back from his Uzbekistan post, threatened with the loss of his job, and accused of a miscellaneous string of diplomatic shortcomings in what his friends say is a wholly unfair way.

The accusations against him included:

? Supporting the visa application of the daughter of an Uzbek family friend who overstayed in England;

? Drinking too convivially with Uzbek locals;

? Allowing an embassy Land Rover to be driven down steps.

Mr Murray’s subsequent episode of depression, for which he had medical treatment, was preceded by what one Foreign Office source calls “a campaign of systematic undermining”.

A senior source said the former ambassador had been put under pressure to stop his repeated criticisms of the brutal Karimov regime, accused among other things of boiling prisoners to death. The source said the pressure was partly “exercised on the orders of No 10”, which found his outspokenness about the compromises Washington was prepared to make in its “war on terror” increasingly embarrassing in the lead up to the Iraq war.

“He was told that the next time he stepped away from the Ameri can line, he would lose his post,” said the source. During a visit earlier this year at the height of the political tensions prior to the Iraq invasion, the former development secretary, Clare Short, is reported to have said to him: “I love the job you are doing down here, but you know, don’t you, that if I go, you go.” She eventually resigned over the Iraq war.

When the affable and energetic Scottish diplomat arrived in Tashkent a year ago at the age of 45, he was a rising star. He had survived the 1998 Sierra Leone scandal, and indeed been promoted.

A firm run by Lt Col Tim Spicer, accused of shipping arms to war-torn Sierra Leone, claimed to have got approval from Mr Murray, then deputy head of the Equatorial Africa department. But Mr Murray told an inquiry he had been “set up” by Spicer, and a committee of MPs absolved him of anything other than “a certain naivety”.

Uzbekistan, a post-Soviet police state on the strategically important border with Afghanistan, was another potential political minefield. Uzbek security services use “torture as a routine investigation technique”, according to the US State Department. But Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led them to finance much of the regime’s security apparatus. In exchange the US gets a military base in Khanabad as a centre for operations in Afghanistan. Last year Washington gave the government $500m (?298m) in aid, $79m of which was specifically for the same “law enforcement and security services” they accused of routine torture.

Mr Murray upset the regime of President Islam Karimov with his blunt remarks on torture. His comments also began to accentuate the differences in the Foreign Office’s supposed ethical foreign policy and its support for US actions. In October last year at Freedom House, Mr Murray read a speech that had been cleared by the Foreign Office to the assembled dignitaries, including top Uzbek officials and the US ambassador.

He said: “We believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. No government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, and who pursue their views by peaceful means.”

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, brought Mr Murray’s hard-hitting speech up in a meeting with Mr Karimov. This was said to have incensed Mr Karimov. Mr Murray sent numerous reports to London about human rights abuses, and his dispatches became increasingly heated during the build-up to the Iraqi invasion. He argued Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses were as bad as those being used as ammunition against Baghdad. Yet Washington was financing Uzbekistan, rather than invading it, he said.

He received many internal emails of support, and some of criticism. He became personally involved in exposing torture, commissioning a forensic report on the bodies of two political prisoners, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, which concluded they had probably been boiled to death.

Last June a Foreign Office investigator arrived in Tashkent following an unconnected row in which an embassy official had sacked three locally hired staff. According to local sources, the investigator kept asking pointed questions about the ambassador himself.

“Somebody seems to be out to get him,” one source noted at the time. The report is said to have exonerated the ambassador from any blame for the personnel problems.

But in August, when Mr Murray went on holiday, a second investigator went out to Tashkent. He appears to have gleaned allegations of ambassadorial indiscretion.

According to friends, Mr Murray had supported the visa request of a young Uzbek girl who wanted to study in Britain. The daughter of a distinguished Uzbek professor, she had been granted a visa to attend a month-long course. Yet she stayed on afterwards for about 10 days of tourism. The consul section of the embassy became agitated, and asked Mr Murray to intervene. Mr Murray rang her father, and asked for her swift return.

In Who’s Who, he lists “drinking and gossiping” as his recreations. But one source close to the embassy insisted: “I have never seen Craig drunk at work. He knew how to entertain as part of his job, but he was not a drinker. It’s absurd.” Another source said: “He had a lot of respect from a lot of people. That would not have happened if he was drunk.”

His driver was said to have driven an embassy Land Rover down some terraced steps to get to a lake shore, on an embassy picnic. “He was just showing how well-built the British car was,” joked one friend. “I heard another senior embassy official drove another one down there im mediately behind him. But he wasn’t disciplined.”

Yet Mr Murray was called back from holiday to London, and threatened with demotion or the sack.

“One can certainly suppose the Uzbeks hated him,” said one Tashkent source close to the embassy. “There is no solid information on American involvement, but people close to him seemed to think they knew it had happened that way.” A US official at their Tashkent embassy said: “The US government had nothing to do with Mr Murray’s leaving Uzbekistan.”

The Foreign Office denies that the US has put pressure on Downing Street. It claims that if there had been such pressure, the FO would not have included critical comments about Uzbekistan in its annual human rights report last month.

A spokesman yesterday refused to comment on whether there were any disciplinary issues involving Mr Murray. He insisted that he remains the ambassador to Uzbekistan.

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The Guardian – US looks away as new ally tortures Islamists

The Guardian – US looks away as new ally tortures Islamists (by Nick Paton Walsh)

Abdulkhalil was arrested in the fields of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana valley in August last year. The 28-year-old farmer was sentenced to 16 years in prison for “trying to overthrow the constitutional structures”.

Last week his father saw him for the first time since that day on a stretcher in a prison hospital. His head was battered and his tongue was so swollen that he could only say that he had “been kept in water for a long time”.

Abdulkhalil was a victim of Uzbekistan’s security service, the SNB. His detention and torture were part of a crackdown on Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamist group.

Independent human rights groups estimate that there are more than 600 politically motivated arrests a year in Uzbekistan, and 6,500 political prisoners, some tortured to death. According to a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy, in August two prisoners were even boiled to death.

The US condemned this repression for many years. But since September 11 rewrote America’s strategic interests in central Asia, the government of President Islam Karimov has become Washington’s new best friend in the region.

The US is funding those it once condemned. Last year Washington gave Uzbekistan $500m (‘300m) in aid. The police and intelligence services – which the state department’s website says use “torture as a routine investigation technique” received $79m of this sum.

Mr Karimov was President Bush’s guest in Washington in March last year. They signed a “declaration” which gave Uzbekistan security guarantees and promised to strengthen “the material and technical base of [their] law enforcement agencies”.

The cooperation grows. On May 2 Nato said Uzbekistan may be used as a base for the alliance’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

Since the fall of the Taliban, US support for the Karimov government has changed from one guided by short-term necessity into a long-term commitment based on America’s strategic requirements.

Critics argue that the US has overlooked human rights abuses to foster a police state whose borders give the Pentagon vantage points into Afghanistan and the other neighbouring republics which are as rich in natural resources as they are in Islamist movements.

The geographical hub of the US-Uzbek alliance is 250 miles south of the capital, Tashkent. Outside the town of Karshi lies the Khanabad military base, the platform for America’s operations in Afghanistan.

The town of Khanabad has been closed for months by the Uzbek government. Locals say the restrictions are compensated for by the highly paid work the base brings.

Journalists are not allowed in to see its runway, logistical supply tents and troop lodgings, all set on roads named after New York avenues. One western source said: “[The Americans] expect to be here for over a decade.”

This will suit the Uzbek government, which welcomes America’s change in attitude as its own security forces continue to repress the population. Uzbeks need a permit to move between towns and an exit visa to leave the country. Attendance at a mosque seems to result in arrest.

In the city of Namangan, in the Ferghana valley, there are many accounts of the regime’s brutality. A fortnight ago, Ahatkhon was beaten by police and held down while members of the Uzbek security service stuffed “incriminating evidence” into his coat pocket. They called in two “witnesses” to watch them discover two leaflets supporting Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He was forced to inform on four friends, one of whom – an ex-boxer – is still in pain from his beating. Abdulkhalil and Ahatkhon prayed regularly. This seemed to have been enough to brand them as the Islamists the Karimov government fears.

The Ferghana valley has been a base for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which the US and the UK say has links with al-Qaida. But the group is thought to have been crippled by the operations in Afghanistan. Analysts dismiss US claims that the IMU is targeting American military assets in the neighbouring republic of Kyrgyzstan.

The fight against the IMU has been used to justify the repression of Islamists. But the Islamic order advocated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir fills a void left by devastating poverty and state brutality.

Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said: “The intense repression here combined with the inequality of wealth and absence of reform will create the Islamic fundamentalism that the regime is trying to quash.”

Another senior western official said: “People have less freedom here than under Brezhnev. The irony is that the US Republican party is supporting the remnants of Brezhnevism as part of their fight against Islamic extremism.”

The US is also funding some human rights groups in Uzbekistan. Last year it gave $26m towards democracy programmes. A state department spokesman said America’s policy was “reform through engagement” and that Uzbekistan had “taken some positive steps”, including “registering a human rights group and a new newspaper”.

Matilda Bogner of Human Rights Watch’s office in Tashkent said: “I would deny there has been any real progress.

“The steps taken are basically window dressing used to get the military funding through the US Congress’s ethical laws. Nothing has changed on the ground.”

Hakimjon Noredinov, 68, agreed. He became a human rights activist after a morgue attendant brought him his eldest son, Nozemjon. He had been left for dead by the security service but was still alive despite having his skull fractured. Nozemjon is now 33, but screamed all night since they split his skull open. He is now in an asylum, Mr Noredinov said. “People’s lives here are no better for US involvement,” he said.

“Because of the US help, Karimov is getting richer and stronger.”

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British Envoy’s Speech Reverberates in Uzbekistan

By David Stern writing in Eurasianet

Three months after British Ambassador Craig Murray delivered a speech in Uzbekistan, diplomats and analysts are still debating how Murray has changed the tone of relations between Britain and this former Soviet republic. Murray caused a sensation for doing one small thing that very few people seem to have done here: he told the truth.

Uzbekistan, which sits north of Afghanistan, became a critical ally to the United States and United Kingdom in the autumn 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. Despite this elevation in status, though, the country has made only marginal improvements in its record of repressing dissidents. At the opening of the Uzbekistan offices of Freedom House on October 17, Ambassador Murray ? with top Uzbek officials and diplomats present ? delivered the diplomatic equivalent of a salvo. Ambassador Murray said: “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy. The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking.”

The shock value of these statements ? as well as others discussing widespread torture in Uzbekistan and the government’s refusal to convert its currency or foster cross-border trade ? cannot be overstated. In one fell swoop the British diplomat stripped away the euphemisms that characterize much of the West’s relationship with Uzbekistan. He continued: “There is worse: we believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. In many cases they have been falsely convicted of crimes with which there appears to be no credible evidence they had any connection.”

Analysts point out that what the ambassador said was in essence nothing new. His count of political prisoners was higher than other published estimates: Human Rights Watch announced in a January 14 report that “conservative” guesses peg the number of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan at between 6,500 and 7,000. But many Western officials have criticized President Islam Karimov for the abuses Murray discussed, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly pressed Karimov to commit to democratic reforms before finalizing a bilateral treaty. Most of Murray’s statements are common currency among foreign diplomats and businessmen in the privacy of their homes and workplaces. Yet his speech stood so far apart from official parlance that it struck some listeners as provocative. “You could have cut the tension in the room with a blunt knife,” said one of those present at the Freedom House opening.

In the months since Murray’s speech, Karimov’s government has tried sporadically to improve its image. Authorities released activist Yuldash Rasulov of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan on January 3 as part of an amnesty declared in December. He had gone to jail on what western advocates called trumped-up charges, and Human Rights Watch applauded his release. Many suspected political prisoners remain behind bars, though, and a United Nations rapporteur announced in December that he had seen “systematic” use of torture while touring Uzbekistan’s prisons. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archives.] In a January 14 report that broadly criticized the Bush Administration for downplaying human rights concerns as it prosecutes a war on terrorists, Human Rights Watch credited the administration for promoting reform in Uzbekistan.

Murray’s strident words, then, had an easy time finding sympathetic ears. More broadly, however, Murray’s choice split the foreign community into two camps. Some diplomats and analysts saw his speech as a result of fatigue, brought on after years of wielding more carrot than stick in the hope that Tashkent would respond to positive reinforcement. This approach has yielded very little progress, they say, since Uzbekistan’s human rights environment has basically stagnated. Other experts believe Murray’s gambit was naive and counterproductive. In this way, the British diplomat also revealed the sharp division that exists within Western governments and organizations over how best to deal with Karimov’s repressive regime during the murky next phase of antiterrorist operations. The main question in this debate is whether criticism of abhorrent policies in Uzbekistan spur the government to reform or instead cause it to circle its wagons and become more defensive.

Observers say that a number of European governments are prone to take a softer tone than the United States, which tends to conduct hard talk in private discussions. Murray’s remarks raise questions about Britain’s and Europe’s role as a counterweight to the United States’ approach. The Human Rights Watch report, which accused the European Union of “undue deference to Washington,” highlight the sensitivity of Murray’s statements.

The irony of Murray’s speech, some say, is that it caused friction between the US and British embassies ? the two foreign representations that are most concerned with democracy and human rights in Uzbekistan. US Ambassador John Herbst was present at the Freedom House function and had delivered, according to observers, a typical American take on human rights in Uzbekistan ? that problems exist but progress has been made. After this predictable address, Murray delivered his broadside. “The British ambassador’s speech was an embarrassment for the United States. It showed up the crack in the shield and many thought that he upstaged [Herbst],” said someone who was present.

In the end, Murray’s decisions about protocol may give his critics some high ground. Some say that no matter what he said, Murray should not have spoken out so early in his tenure, just months after he had arrived in Tashkent. They say that such a speech should have waited until the newly appointed diplomat had time to raise the issues with Uzbeks themselves. This would not have necessarily brought about a change, but it would have given the British ambassador a better defense when others challenged his approach. Murray in effect hamstrung himself, say experts, compromising the rest of his work in the country.

Even if that analysis proves accurate, though, the stridency in Murray’s words has emboldened some other critics of Karimov. “To me the fundamental question is not why did he say this, but why the other ambassadors didn’t?” said one Western observer.

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