Monthly Archives: October 2003

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

View with comments

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?

View with comments

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.

View with comments

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.

View with comments