Indymedia – UK Torture: Interview with Craig Murray

Indymedia – Uk torture: Interview with Craig Murray: Ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan (by Laurence Walker)

Q: Could you just give an overview of your current situation?

CM: I’m still suspended on full pay. That’s my official status, which is very peculiar. At least I’m still being paid, but I think they’re trying to summon up the nerve to sack me. And to do so, leaving as little comeback as possible for my lawyers to take them to court. But I’m convinced my career in the Foreign Office is finished.

Q: Would you want to go back?

CM: I don’t know. I mean, I worked for them for twenty years. Very, very successfully, on the whole. Until I went to Uzbekistan my career was a kind of model of rapid upward progress.

Q: Yes, I heard you were the youngest ever British ambassador.

CM: Yes, I don’t think that’s actually true. People say that, but I don’t believe it. Certainly now, my mate James Clarke has been appointed ambassador to Luxembourg, and he’s only 34 or something. But I don’t think I was ever the youngest ever ambassador, but I was certainly very young for an ambassador. And particularly very young for an ambassador to a country which was of some importance.

Q: In one of your first interviews as ambassador to Uzbekistan you mentioned that it was very difficult to work there. Was this something that was apparent right from the beginning, and what sort of difficulties were you facing?

CM: Well, I think I’ll start by saying, as far as I can gather, before I got there the British Embassy did very little at all. I recall, when I arrived the ambassador’s car – the flag car – was over three years old. It had only got 10,000 km on the clock – in three years! And the embassy drivers?Normally when you arrive at your post you can rely on your drivers to know where things and places are, because they’re used to going there. So places like ministries and important British companies, you just assume they’ll know where they are. Well, I found the embassy drivers didn’t know were any of the places were, because no one in the embassy had ever been outside the walls of the compound before. This idea of travelling out, and meeting people, and doing things was kind of new to them. So that was peculiar. I remember my first week, I visited a number of British companies, I visited every British company represented in Tashkent – which isn’t a great many. But several of them said they’d never been visited by a British ambassador before. They nearly all said that, and BAT (British American Tobacco) was the only one that had been visited by a British ambassador before. To me, that was truly shocking.

Q: Why do you think this is?

CM: Because the Foreign Office is full of stuck up, lazy, out-of-touch people. That’s why. I’m very bitter now! But Uzbekistan is difficult because it’s a very nasty, totalitarian dictatorship. It’s a very efficient totalitarian dictatorship. Everything that’s done is decided by central government. I recall, at one time we were arranging a cultural festival, with some concerts of British music played by a local orchestra. I was working with the orchestra on that, to help them get some examples of western-European music, because their repertoire was actually extremely limited. Their physical access to sheet music was very limited. And we discovered that anything the orchestra played had to be politically vetted as being acceptable in terms of Uzbek national ideology, which was fascinating. It was really quite amazing. It’s a completely mad totalitarian society. They even banned billiards, I remember, which struck me as peculiarly off-the-wall. As from this academic year, one day a week has to be given by all schools and universities to national education, and national education comprises three things: There’s Uzbek folk singing and dancing, there’s a very tendentious version of history – which is called Uzbek history – and there’s the study of the works of President Karimov, which is most important and the largest of the elements. It really is a weird place to live and work. It’s a kind of cloud-cuckoo-land place, in which one of the things that makes it difficult is that people lie to you all the time. The government lies all the time. Officially there’s an economic growth of eight and a half percent this year. In fact, anyone who knows anything about Uzbekistan knows there’s been negative growth for the last several years. But it doesn’t stop them throwing the official statistics at you. That’s the difficult part, as westerners, to deal with people who lie to your face, because they’re not used to that context. I mean, normally we take it for granted that when people say something to you they bare some approximation to the truth anyway. In Uzbekistan you can’t. It’s a very peculiar place to work.

Q: On the subject of Karimov, he was interviewed by a Russian news agency earlier this month, and there were a number of interesting things he was saying. For example, “External influence will be effective, only if we permit it to be effective,” – what do you make of this comment?

CM: Well, I think Karimov’s politics are essentially paranoid. He has a paranoid view of the world, and you can see the results of that in the physical closing of borders, the detonating of bridges in the Ferganna Valley so people can’t get across the border. The desire for complete control over all media and information. And anyone who meets Karimov – I’ve been with many official visitors as they call on him – he always gives the same opening spiel about how Uzbekistan is surrounded by enemies, how it’s hemmed in by the narcotics trade, the Mafia, by the Russians, by gangsters, by Chinese goods which carry influenza! He has a paranoid worldview, and I think that this dislike of the outside world is very notable. I don’t at all buy his argument that “we can’t have a western-style democracy in Uzbekistan”. Who says democracy’s western? India’s a democracy.

Q: Yes, that’s another thing he said in the interview, he said ‘the process of becoming a democracy will take years, and someone will surely volunteer to hurry us up. That is something, however, where undue haste will be harmful’?Hasn’t this been proved in Iraq? I mean, how can the western countries be of benefit to the Uzbekistan?

CM: Well, I think the argument that democracy isn’t possible, it’s difficult in some way, or not native to Uzbekistan is an argument you only hear put forward by very rich people. I’ve never heard a poor man say: “We can’t have democracy here.” The people who benefit from a lack of democracy, particularly Karimov, who’s a totalitarian dictator who’s collected hundreds of millions of dollars, stolen from the people. And his daughter has possibly even stolen more than him.

Q: Yes, could you tell me about his daughter, does she have some official government position?

CM: Yes, well her official government position is as economic adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but she’s benefited hugely from the so-called privatization process. She’s also been heavily involved in the negotiations for Gazprom (Russian gas company) to take the Uzbek gas fields, which were carved up between herself and a chap called Alisha Asmanov, who’s an ethnic Uzbek living in Russia. He’s the guy who bought a very large section of what used to be British Steel – he’s quite a well-known Mafia-type of figure. And she made a lot of money out of, for example, the mobile telephone contracts in Uzbekistan – Uzdunrobita the company’s called. She owned a 50% stake in that company and that was sold out to some Russians for about $400 million earlier this year. It wasn’t worth vaguely that, I mean what precisely the corrupt deal behind that was no one knows because it wasn’t worth nearly that. She still has a stake, of course, in Cocoa Cola Uzbekistan, which led to a famous row when she had a divorce. She’s been heavily involved in trafficking women. She owns a ‘travel’ agency, which she owns jointly with one of the younger sons of the Emir of Dubai, and that agency can issue visas for the United Arab Emirates. The travel agency itself can issue visas, and they’ve been involved in trafficking tens of thousands of Uzbek women to Dubai to work as prostitutes. That’s been a very profitable line for her. I bet your editor won’t dare to publish that!

Q: We’ll see, it depends what kind of mood she’s in. Obviously the main reason for you leaving was that you spoke out against the torture situation. There were reports of prisoners having their nails ripped out and being boiled alive. Are such extreme cases a rarity, or are they quite systematic?

CM: It’s completely systematic, and not rare at all. Thousands of people are tortured every year, undoubtedly. Attention always focuses when people are tortured to death, but that’s a tiny minority of the cases. The people who are torturing are doing so to extract information and confessions usually. In the cases of the guys who were boiled to death, they were trying to get them to sign a recantation of their faith, which is a slightly different situation. Most of the torture goes on to try to extract so-called confessions. But the last thing the torturer wants is a dead person. It gives them a lot of explaining to do, and you can’t get any more information out of them, they can’t sign anything when they’re dead. So the torture deaths only happen by accident in a tiny minority of the cases. There are thousands of cases every year of people being tortured. In the Uzbek courts, in both political and criminal cases, the conviction rate is over 99%. Over 99% of people who come to court are found guilty. I know that the conviction rate’s over 99%, it’s not a kind of estimate. We did a project on court reporting, where we worked with a lot of courts throughout the country for a couple of years. Now I can’t give you as precise a figure, but in over 90% of cases – and I would guess over 95% of cases – the accused person signs a full confession. Now you have to ask yourself why? And the reason is, the way the criminal justice system runs is the police decide who did it, then beat the hell out of them, suffocate them, dip bits of them into boiling liquid or whatever until they sign a confession. Then they’re convicted. And the same applies in cases of political and religious dissidents. About a quarter of all so-called criminal cases in Uzbekistan are actually political or religious in their motivation.

Q: A controversial accusation you made was that MI6 was using information extracted from tortured Uzbek citizens. What evidence did you actually have to lead you to this conclusion?

CM: I’ve got no doubts about it whatsoever. I’m 100 percent sure of it, and in all my dealings with the British government about it – and I’ve been called back from Uzbekistan to have meetings specifically on the subject – they have never denied it. The British government has never denied it, and scores of British reporters have phoned up the Foreign Office and said, “What is the line?” and they always come back with the same line. It’s that “it would be irresponsible to ignore useful evidence in the war against terror”. They have never said, “No, we’re not gaining evidence from torture,” – the British government has never denied it. They can’t deny it.

Q: Taking things a stage further, there was a report a little while back about the American ‘Ghost Planes’ which would take people to countries where torture was used and get information from them. Do you know anything about this?

CM: Well yes, that Gulfstream plane came in to Tashkent several times while I was there, and it’d bring in detainees. As far as I’m aware it only brought in Uzbek detainees from Bagram airport, from Afghanistan. I’ve had many people allege to me that Americans used it to bring non-Uzbek-related detainees in specifically to be tortured for questioning. I never saw any evidence of that. I’m not saying it isn’t true, but to my knowledge I only know of it bringing in detainees from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan.

Q: Well, isn’t it against the UN Convention Against Torture article 3.1 (No state party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he will be in danger of being subjected to torture) whoever they were and wherever they were from?

CM: Yes it is contrary to that, undoubtedly.

Q: And did you bring this up with the American government?

CM: Yes, I mean, I asked my deputy to speak to the head of the CIA station in Tashkent. And what I said was, “I don’t want to put my foot in it here. Now it’s possible that the CIA have got a special arrangement with the Uzbek security services which makes certain that the intelligence they get wasn’t obtained under torture, maybe they have special photographs, and CIA people posted at all interrogations, and arrangements are in place. I don’t want to make a fool of myself. We need to check that this really is obtained under torture.” So she went and saw the CIA head of station in Tashkent, and this was in November 2002, and said to him, “Look, my ambassador’s worried that the intelligence you’re passing on to MI6 is probably obtained under torture, and he wants your take on whether this is possible”. And she reported back to me, absolutely no reason to disbelieve her, the CIA head of station Tashkent said: “You’re right, it will be obtained under torture. But, we don’t see that as a problem.” Yes, I’ve got no doubt at all about it.

Q: And I suppose they justify this by saying it’s part of the War on Terror?

CM: Yes, but the War on Terror seems to justify any ablations of human rights whatsoever.

Q: Yes, I was quite interested to see Condoleeza Rice naming the ‘outposts of tyranny’, which obviously don’t include Uzbekistan. They’re Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma and Belarus.

CM: I think it’s fascinating that the Americans are much harder on human rights in Kazakhstan, which although bad, isn’t nearly as bad as Uzbekistan. It’s quite amazing really, and the Americans amaze me with their hypocrisy.

Q: Is it something to do with the huge business possibilities in Kazakhstan? Are they trying to clean it up?

CM: Yes, I think their attitude towards anywhere depends on what’s best for the American oil and gas interests in effect. And I think that American oil and gas interests weren’t doing as well as they’d wanted in Kazakhstan so they then hit the country over the head with the human rights stick in an effort to loosen it up, with that motive. I think that’s certainly true. Uzbekistan they want to keep sweet because their airbase is seen as central to their policy of military domination of the oil and gas regions. So that’s why. But I think for Condoleeza Rice to name those countries, did she name Zimbabwe?

Q: Yes, that was one of the ones.

CM: Well, in Zimbabwe, for example, they’ve got a very unpleasant government but it doesn’t practice torture on anything like the scale that Karimov does, and there is an opposition. They’ve just had democratic elections in Uzbekistan, so-called, and the opposition weren’t allowed to contest them. I saw a most wonderful statement from the American ambassador, a load of pious rubbish, where he applauded the elections as a step on the road to democracy, and then at the end said it was unfortunate that the opposition weren’t allowed to take part! But I mean, in Zimbabwe, at least the opposition can actually stand in elections and there are actually opposition members of parliament, there is an independent judiciary. There are none of those things in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is, by any measure, a much worse dictatorship than Zimbabwe, and Condoleeza Rice is just talking, well, crap.

Q: On the subject of the Uzbek elections, obviously the OSCE were less than impressed with the way it was run, and one of Karimov’s answers to this was that it didn’t matter what the OSCE said anyway. To what extent is he right? I mean, how much weight does an OSCE report really have?

CM: He’s completely right, because the member governments don’t have the political will to actually do anything about it. The OSCE has to face up, at some stage, to the question of, ‘What does it do about including in its membership countries which fundamentally just don’t believe in the basic tenets of the OSCE’. It’s a question that can’t be ignored forever. And anyone who believes that democracy will come by pandering to Karimov gradually over a ten or twenty-year period is talking rubbish. There has been no progress whatsoever in the last five years, so why would anyone expect any to come now?

Q: And where does the British government stand?

A: I think when it comes to the War on Terror the British government doesn’t have its own policy. It’s simply following United States policy. It’s policy is to stay in line with the United States, or as Tony Blair would put it, ‘To stay shoulder to shoulder with the United States’ – even when the United States is very obviously acting appallingly.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: My immediate plans?I intend to stand against Jack Straw in his Blackburn constituency. Just to annoy him. And to bring home this question of complicity with dictatorships, complicity with torture in the War on Terror, because Jack Straw himself personally took the decision to use Uzbek torture-based intelligence. It was put to him, he discussed it. He discussed it with the head of MI6 and they decided they would continue using it. So I want to hold him accountable for that, and to make sure that the electors and his own constituency know all about it. I’m not anticipating being elected I should hasten to say. You can be the first people to publish that!

Q: You’ve almost finished writing a book on your experiences over the last two years, but what else are you doing, or planning to do, at present?

CM: I do a number of lectures, and I’ve got a few more lined up The book is going to be the main thing. And there are a couple of major television documentaries coming out in the spring, on the torture issue. I’ve already pre-recorded quite long interviews for those. I did an appearance on ‘Hard Talk’, so I’m continuing to do quite a lot of media and broadcast work. It’s not something I intend to let drop.

Q: And in the long term would you like to return to Uzbekistan?

CM: Oh yes, I love the country. I love the people, generally. I’ve got lots of good friends there. I fully intend to go back once we’ve got rid of the dictatorship. But that will be some time yet. I can’t see any signs of hope on the horizon. The people get steadily poorer. It’s pretty desperate there, this winter again, with salaries months behind, no heating at all, and cold weather. There’s no sign of economic reform. And one thing I want to do is start a campaign against Uzbek cotton, because the ordinary people of Uzbekistan don’t benefit at all from the cotton. They get pressed as slave labour to pick it. Children of seven and up have to pick cotton, living in pretty awful conditions in the fields. It’s child slave labour that picks most of Uzbekistan’s cotton, and I hope to start a campaign on that issue. Uzbek cotton is still 100% state grown. Workers on state farms, who make up 60% of the population, get $2 a month. So it seems to me that a campaign against Uzbek cotton is a good idea. The difficulty is that you can’t do it by consumer boycott, because there’s no way of telling where those fibers in your shirt came from!

Unfortunately my voice recorder ran out at this stage, but I took detailed notes throughout the interview, which went on for another ten minutes or so. He spoke about his unexplained illness – heart problem – which almost killed him 48 hours after returning to Tashkent for the last time. To this day, he doesn’t know if it was the result of a deliberate attempt on his life, but believes it probably was. Whatever the reason, it has left him with a serious heart condition for which he’ll undergo major heart-surgery in March this year.

He also spoke of a protest by around 100 Uzbek citizens outside the British Embassy in Tashkent – one of the largest ever protests under Karimov’s regime – after he’d been removed from Uzbekistan for raising too many issues the British government would rather not discuss. The peaceful demonstrators were ‘dispersed’ by the Uzbek police – who severely beat them (including the women and children). Craig Murray assumes that this was at the request of the British Embassy. If you’d like any more detailed information on these extra areas, let me know and I’ll send them through.

To date, no accusations against Craig Murray of misconduct have been proved by the FCO. He remains indefinitely suspended on full pay.