UZBEKISTAN HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE WAR ON TERRORISM
Social conditions of the majority of workers in Uzbekistan are today considerably worse than they were in the Soviet era. This is not the claim of the left, but a point made by the former UK Ambassador to the Central Asian republic, Craig Murray.
Murray, a career diplomat, has more than 19 years experience in the UK diplomatic service having worked in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He was suspended by the Foreign Office as UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan last year in a well-publicised case after he had spoken out against the extensive use of torture in the country and now accuses the British authorities, Foreign Office and security services, of turning a collective blind eye to what with no exaggeration can be described as systemic atrocities being committed by the pro-US regime of Islam Karimov.
Sixty percent of the population live on state farms Workers on the state farms, where some 60 percent of the Uzbek population reside, are unable to move without official permission and such permits are always denied. The people are destined to suffer a life of forced labour and dire poverty in conditions harsher than those existing in many “Third World” countries. Agricultural workers are paid 2,000 Uzbek sums per month, which is equivalent to a meagre two dollars a month. This compares with a national average salary of between 20 and 28 dollars a month, which is, for example, the typical salary of an Uzbek teacher. The living standards of even urban workers in Uzbekistan, however, remain worse than those of average worker in Ghana, Craig Murray points out.
Uzbekistan has two main resources, cotton and minerals Cotton is produced on the state farms largely for export making the country the world’s second largest exporter of cotton. It is important to be aware that this cotton is produced by using what is effectively slave labour, including child slave labour, which is directly controlled and organised by the state.
Conditions in state farms have deteriorated since Soviet times, the former UK ambassador states, saying that present conditions are now far worse than in the Gorbachev and Brezhnev periods and he is even prepared to suggest that it is at least debatable that they are any better today than in the Stalin period. An indication of the scale of the recent decline in working condistions is seen in the fact that all cotton picking is currently performed by hand whereas in the days of the USSR it was all mechanised. What happened to all the machinery, Murray does not explain; perhaps it was sold off by corrupt officials on the black market?
A post-Soviet innovation is the use of child labour which is now extensively used on the farms. Children are brought in by the state during harvest season when schools are ordered to be closed for two months while pupils as young as seven years old are sent to work in the cotton fields. The children work average of 12 hour day shifts during this time. Recently an NGO sponsored by the Soros Foundation did some undercover filming of the appalling working conditions on these state farms, so what is happening there may soon become more widely known.
The Uzbek state budget is secret
A large percentage of state revenues are simply lost through the widespread corruption of unaccountable officials. Since production and sales figures are never made public, it is not so difficult for the ruling elite to cream off vast profits for themselves. Murray says that the Uzbek President takes as much as 10% of the country’s annual gold revenues for his private funds, which must amount to a huge sum given that the country is the world’s fifth largest gold producer.
As for cotton, the trading companies dealing in cotton on the international markets tend to be headed by relatives of members of the government. These trading companies take most of the profits, but it needs to be pointed out that the corruption extends to foreign trading companies, including those in UK, who profit from selling Uzbek cotton on the international markets, Murray says.
Uzbekistan runs a very efficient state controlled system that does not want to reform itself
The Uzbek leadership sought independence in 1991 along with other Central Asian republics as the Soviet Union collapsed in order to escape the control of Yeltsin whom it was feared would have begun imposing market reforms from Moscow. They had no intention of “democratising” the country, they simply wanted to protect their power base. The fact that the same figures are still running the country, but free from the influence of Moscow, and that corruption has become a way of life, has not prevented the US from enlisting Uzbekistan as a key regional ally in its so-called war on terrorism. Donald Rumsfeld and others from the Bush administration have visited the country and praised Karimov as a fighter for his country’s freedom.
In the capital, Tashkent, there are 40 thousand uniformed police officers “serving” a total city population of 2.5mn. In addition, there are over 40 thousand plain clothed intelligence officers and 28 thousand Ministry of Interior armed forces.
In Uzbek jails there are a minimum of seven thousand political prisoners, Murray estimates (Human Rights Watch estimates 6,000). These figures do not include people accused of insurrectionary or violent activity. Among the political prisoners are most of the country’s writers; the human rights group PEN lists 21 Uzbek writers as being held as political prisoners.
However, these figures do not take account of people held for general criminal offences, when in reality it is a common state technique for people to be detained after having drugs or banned literature “planted” on them by police. The former Ambassador says that he came across scores of such cases during his time in the country. He cites a case of one person who had been dragged from his bed completely naked and was alleged to have been concealing banned literature on his person at the exact time of his arrest.
One trial of alleged members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that Craig Murray attended during his first week in post as Ambassador was notable for the crude anti-Muslim jokes with which the trial judge interrupted the court proceedings: at one point the judge asked, “how can the accused men hear each other talk through those long beards” and later the judge declared “is it not surprising they have time to carry out so much evil activity when they have to pray so many times a day”.
During this trial, the main witness failed to identify the accused men and was simply corrected by the judge who instructed the witness to identify them.
In Uzbekistan, many people can be charged and executed for the same murder, as in one murder case when 27 people from different parts of the country were convicted and executed all apparently involved in the same incident. This shows how that when a crime occurs, it tends to be seized on opportunistically by state officials as an opportunity to crack down on the opposition.
Muslim people in Uzbekistan are tortured into confessing that they support Bin Laden because the state is seeking to persuade the West that its domestic opposition is connected to Al Qaeda. To fight its war on terrorism, Uzbekistan obtains aid from the US. The fact that it is all largely a sham never gets remarked upon. The reason for this is that Western security services are all too keen to accept Uzbekistan’s assertions that it is fighting the war on terrorism.
Many abuses including torture and rape are being allowed to go on in Uzbekistan because the country has become a reliable ally for the US and Europe. The country boasts a conviction rate of more than 99%, and when asked about this officials explain that they never charge people who are innocent, unlike the UK.
However, convictions are invariably based on confessions, which are extracted through torture.
Abuses of security services extend to sexual abuse The scale of the abuses carried out against the people whether prisoners or civilians is enormous. As an example, the former Ambassador mentions a meeting he had with 17 female students during which five alleged that they had been raped by members of the security forces.
These oppressive conditions for women have many tragic consequences such as the high incidence of suicides and suicide attempts. He cites the work of an NGO in Samarkand dealing with cases of women who have tried to burn themselves in a bid to commit suicide. It deals with around 350 cases a year in the city and it is estimated that the failed attempts represent only 50% of the total self-burning incidents; sadly the other 50% result in death.
MI6 Using Information Obtained from Uzbek Security Sources The circumstances surrounding Craig Murray’s eventually removed as Ambassador remain a grave cause for concern. Despite the smear stories emanating from the Foreign Office that he was incompetent or an alcoholic, the truth appears to be that he broke an unwritten rule by exposing the brutality of the Uzbek regime, when it was becoming an ever more important ally of the West. He stated that British security services were using information received via the CIA from Uzbek security sources and that they knew such information was not true. Also they were aware that this evidence had been obtained through using torture to extract confessions. A particular case involved a story of Islamic groups apparently training in preparation for an attack on Samarkand. Murray raised the credibility of this intelligence with the CIA station in Tashkent and told them that to accept such intelligence was illegal, immoral and wrong. The CIA replied by admitting the information was probably obtained through the use of torture but that this was not a problem. When he raised with London the fact that Uzbekistan was exaggerating the links that its opposition had with Bin Laden in order to justify its receipt of aid from the US, he was immediately recalled back to the UK.
He was told by a leading legal authority in the UK that it was perfectly legal under international law to use such information as long as UK officials or employees were not carrying out torture themselves or diectly instructing the use of torture methods. The MI5 position was that the information received from Uzbekistan was invaluable in the war on terrorism. To Murray, it was absolutely useless.
The reason that torture is permitted so casually shows how far the moral goalposts have changed since 11 September, Murray points out, declaring that it is a proces he wa simply not preapred to go along with.
Importance of Uzbekistan to US
A US airbase in Uzbekistan with 6-7 thousand troops was used extensively in the war on Afghanistan. The US now wants this base to be permanent, it is strategically vital since it is within an hour of Russia and China and within five minutes of Iran.
The use of Uzbekistan fits Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of defending US vital interests in the “wider Middle East”; his concept basicially means protecting US interests in Central Asian oil and gas. It is without doubt that the hydrocarbons interests are the driving force for the US policy regards Uzbekistan, Murray says. This is why there have been no protests from the US about Islam Karimov’s regime; although Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice and others have visited Tashkent and Karimov has visited Washington they have never raised human rights issues either publicly or privately.
US aid to Uzbekistan now amounts to between 250 and 500mn dollars a year. European interests in the country are much less extensive than those of the US. Washington is clearly driven by hydrocarbons interests in the region. The EU is not a major player in Central Asia in general compared with the US.
A golden globe sculpture in the gigantic Independence Square, in the centre of Tashkent, shows an illuminated map of the country on a massively exaggerated scale; the borders of the country seem to stretch right across the planet from the UK to China. The whole grandiose edifice is a vulgar monstrosity exposing the shallowness at the heart of the new regime and indicates a failure of Islam Karimov to find a national ideology to replace Socialism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Statues of the tyrant Timur have replaced Lenin in the main public spaces; statues of Lenin were melted down and remoulded into images of Timur. The adoption of this ancient despot as a national hero is exceedingly ironic given that the historical Timur was not in fact an Uzbek but came from a Mongol sub-group; more importantly he was responsible for countless bloody massacres of Uzbek people. The revival of a Timur cult is thus a very bizarre choice for the focus of the new nationalist ideology and stands as an ugly commentary on a deeply repressive regime.
Craig Murray was speaking at the Cafe Diplo, Institute Francais, Saturday, 22 January.
Some startling facts about Uzbekistan
Child slave labour is organised and controlled by the state;
Tashkent, which was the fourth largest city in the former USSR, does not possess one single bookshop;
An estimated 99% of court cases end in a conviction;
The state is moving towards the elimination of Russian as an official language, including removing it from the university system. Effectively, this will deny the people access to most technical and philosophical literature since very few books are currently translated into the Uzbek language;
President Islam Karimov takes 10% of the revenues derived from gold sales for his personal use;
The President’s daughter controls the main server for email services to the country and all emails are viewed by the state security services.