Monthly Archives: March 2005


Craig Murray’s Campaign Diary (3)

The Guardian – Our man in Blackburn

Our campaign is pretty well on the move now, except for continuing telecom problems. It is 10 days since I applied to BT for landlines for our campaign HQ. They called yesterday to tell me an engineer will be available on April 7. I spent much of the day fuming hopelessly at various BT officials, but still no line.

I buy, at great expense, an Orange mobile office card to try to solve my internet problem in the meantime. Rather than wait for pages to download, it would be quicker to travel to the addresses of the websites and ask for a paper copy. I make more irate calls. Orange blames overload on the network, as opposed to its network being no good. It would function perfectly if nobody used it.

We had a minor drama on Maundy Thursday. Our campaign HQ used to be the borough council’s information office. They moved out in November, leaving their sign above the premises. It had grown very mucky, but was still legible. The windows are now full of anti-war and anti-Straw posters. The council woke up to this matter the day before the Easter break.

Two officials stood outside looking important and making calls on their mobile phones. Then they asked me to take the sign down, to which I replied: “It’s your sign.”

An Ealing comedy ensued with lots of people arriving, looking at the sign, and speaking to me. A man from Capita told me that the council had instructed them that the sign must be down that day, before the Easter holiday. After the flood of officials, two painters arrived, having been pulled off work on housing. They proceeded to take down the sign, and I made them a cup of tea. They promised to vote for me.

Capita is an interesting privatised body. It seems to do public works less efficiently than the government used to, and with the senior management getting paid huge amounts of cash – so much that Capita’s chief executive is sponsoring a city academy for Blackburn.

This is the government’s wonderful new scheme. If you put in less than 10% of the capital cost of the new school, you can have it named after you, and you get a big say in choosing the staff and the curriculum. In the north-east these schools are actually teaching creationism – which, of course, pleases the spooky-eyed religious types on the Blair/Bush axis. Goodness knows what the one in Blackburn will teach. That the Iraq war was legal?

Blackburn is getting a new hospital under the private finance initiative. It seems to me incredible that it can be argued that providing a cash return on capital to the private sector works out cheaper than not doing so. In practice, the result in Blackburn as elsewhere is that the levels of service and facility provision continually dwindle as the project progresses. Can anyone explain to me why we could find ?4bn at the drop of a hat for the war in Iraq, but not public money for a hospital in Blackburn?

The campaign slog continues. On Monday my girlfriend and I leafletted 1,300 houses between us. My pedometer registered 27 miles, much of it up and down steps. Not wanting to ruin good shoes, I bought a pair in Vienna last month for ?20. They are made of good leather, but have a most unfortunate two-tone effect. A family member told me they make me look like a Russian pimp. I had seen that danger, but rather hoped the effect might be confined to my feet. I can imagine Silvio Berlusconi saying that at a cabinet meeting: “Bring me the feet of that Russian pimp.”

There is a real flaw in our democracy, with the odds heavily stacked against independent candidates. On the ballot paper, thanks to a wonderful bit of New Labour Orwellianism, you can no longer choose how to describe yourself. A description such as “Save Kidderminster Hospital” or “No to George Bush” would remind voters of what you stand for. But now you are allowed only to enter the name of a registered political party or the word “Independent”.

In each constituency there are strict limits on what you can spend, but no limit on what the parties can spend nationally. So Blackburn hoardings are all plastered with Labour party advertising, which doesn’t count against Jack Straw’s limit, but any I put up will count against mine. On top of which, flyposting has been made a specific offence. Well, I think civil disobedience in the name of democracy is called for here. I am off to flypost Blackburn’s many boarded-up buildings.

www.craigmurray.co.uk

View with comments

Sunday Times – Muslim says Straw made peerage offer

Sunday Times – Muslim says Straw made peerage offer

JACK STRAW has become embroiled in a row with a wealthy Muslim businessman who claims he was offered the prospect of a peerage not to contest the foreign secretary’s Blackburn seat.

The disputed conversation took place in Straw’s constituency flat during a private meeting in which the minister sought to dissuade Yousuf Bhailok from standing against him.

Straw was targeted by Bhailok, a former general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, because of his pivotal role alongside Tony Blair in the Iraq war.

Although Straw won a majority of 9,249 in 2001, he could be vulnerable to tactical voting in the coming general election. He is already being challenged by Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.

According to census data, the Blackburn constituency has the third highest proportion of Muslim voters in the country, at almost 20%.

The meeting with Straw took place on September 10 last year on the eve of Bhailok’s appearance before a parliamentary assessment board, which would determine whether he would be placed on a Conservative list of approved election candidates.

This weekend he said Straw told him he would not be suited to the life of an MP, stating: “Yousuf, it will be a hard struggle to win against me. You aren’t the type of career politician that it is necessary to have in the House of Commons.”

Bhailok added: “There is no doubt about the fact that he [Straw] mooted the fact that I was a potential peerage candidate. It has been mentioned before but it was mentioned in that conversation, so it had its implications.”

Bhailok, who described Straw as a “friend” whom he has known for many years, admitted that Straw made no direct offer. “I don’t think he was [so] crude [as] to suggest, ‘Yousuf you step down and the peerage is yours’.

“Jack was subtle in the sense that he mentioned, ‘You have been in the top of the list for quite a while and these things take quite a while as you know’.”

Bhailok emphasised he did his best to win the Tory nomination, offering to spend more than ?100,000 of his own money on a pre-election publicity campaign.

However, he lost out to a younger man, Imtiaz Ameen, for the Blackburn nomination, despite having shared a platform with Michael Howard, the Tory leader, when he made a headline-grabbing speech attacking the British National party in Burnley.

A spokesman for Straw confirmed that he met Bhailok on September 10 to hear him outline his plans to unseat him. However, he said the meeting was held at Bhailok’s request and he denied any suggestion of any impropriety by the minister.

“Mr Bhailok raised the issue of the peerage and Mr Straw made clear that these things are subject to rules. On no occasion did he say that Mr Bhailok was in line for one. He was in no position to make any offers like that and nor did he do so.”

Sources said Bhailok sent Straw a text message on September 14 implying that the minister had dangled the prospect of a peerage.

One source said Straw, who was not particularly close to Bhailok, “smelt a rat” and replied by text message repeating what he had said at the meeting and emphasising that strict rules governed the granting of peerages. The source added: “He kept these texts because he thought it was a slightly odd thing which had been raised with him.”

Straw’s account is supported by Mohammed Khan, the Labour deputy leader of Blackburn with Darwen borough council, who arranged the meeting in the flat and was the sole witness.

Speaking from Pakistan, where he is on holiday, Khan said: “Jack told him, ‘It’s your democratic right [to stand] but I’ve been here for 25 years’. Yousuf mentioned the peerage but Jack said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t promise anything to anybody’.”

However, Joe Smith, who was Blackburn Conservative association chairman at the time, said Bhailok told him of the alleged offer on two occasions. “He said Jack Straw offered him a peerage in order to persuade him not to stand. It’s as straight as that.”

Bhailok is now considering whether to stand in the Blackburn seat as an independent candidate.

View with comments

The New Statesman – Our Man in Blackburn

The New Statesman – Our man in Blackburn (by Paul Routledge)

Paul Routledge meets the ex-ambassador who wants to bring down the Foreign Secretary

Craig Murray, our troublesome former man in Tashkent, is at a loss to understand why he has not been charged under the Official Secrets Act. After all, he has disclosed secret diplomatic despatches from his time in the Uzbek capital, exposing torture and human rights abuses under the regime of President Islam Karimov – abuses that the Foreign Office ignored. And he’s still spilling the beans: for good measure, the Khanabad military base, run by the US on the outskirts of Karshi, which is supposed to have only two air force squadrons and 1,200 ground troops, has “more of both, not acknowledged publicly. It’s enormous, and it’s intended to be permanent.”

Now, sacked by the Foreign Office for speaking out against tyranny, Murray is investing some of his ?315,000 pay-off to stand as an independent candidate against the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in his Lancashire seat of Blackburn.

(more…)

View with comments

Craig Murray’s Campaign Diary (2)

The second entry from Craig Murray’s campaign diary is published in today’s Guardian.

The sun is shining in Blackburn and spirits are light. Well, mine are. I am sitting in my new campaign headquarters. My assistants are Peter Newton and Eddie Duxbury, two pensioners. Pete is cleaning the windows and Eddie is setting up the computers and telephones. I managed to rent a shop in a perfect town-centre position, just down from the railway centre.

Campaigning is going well. I am enjoying my encounters with the voters, who are given to speaking their minds. I have met with no hostility. I have been invited for cups of tea by total strangers. One thing that has surprised me when I have gone leafletting is that it is not unusual for people to leave their front doors ajar. On some streets, children run about and play football in the road as I did as a child. These are things London has lost.

(more…)

View with comments

Boston Globe – US handling of terror suspects questioned

Boston Globes – US handling of terror suspects questioned (by Farah Stockman)

WASHINGTON — The former British ambassador to Uzbekistan says that over the past three years, the United States has routinely handed over dozens of low-level terrorism suspects to Uzbekistan, an authoritarian regime that systematically uses torture to obtain terrorist confessions during interrogations.

The former ambassador, Craig Murray, also contends that the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 routinely cited information in their regular intelligence briefings that has been passed on by Uzbek authorities and was almost certainly obtained under torture.

(more…)

View with comments

Washington Times – Torture Doublespeak

Washington Times – UK Torture doublespeak (by Nat Hentoff)

This is the second in a series of columns on America’s rendition of suspected terrorists to countries known for torturing prisoners.

The word “covert” has long been associated with the CIA’s use of “extraordinary renditions” by which suspected terrorists, believed to have essential information, are sent to countries our own State Department condemns for torturing prisoners. This is no longer a secret, as shown March 6 on CBS -TV’s “60 Minutes,” which began with: “Witnesses tell the same story: masked men in an unmarked jet seize their target, cut off his clothes…Tranquilize him and fly him away.”

(more…)

View with comments

Sunday Times – Foreign Office faces probe into ‘manipulation’

Sunday Times – Foreign Office faces probe into ‘manipulation’ (by Robert Winnett)

THE Foreign Office is facing an investigation into the way it treats its staff amid allegations that diplomats and mandarins are being “politically manipulated”.

A friend of one of those affected said: “People’s careers are being ruined because they are not toeing the political line.

“The independence and probity of Foreign Office staff is something that is paramount yet recent events have undermined this key principle.”

A number of senior diplomatic staff claim they have been victimised for speaking out against government policy.

They include James Cameron, a diplomat in Romania, who made allegations about Britain’s lax immigration controls, and Craig Murray, the ambassador to Uzbekistan, who claimed that the government was turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses.

Other senior diplomats and London-based officials have also voiced concerns about the management of the department and are thought to be co-operating with the inquiry by the National Audit Office (NAO), the government’s watchdog.

Some of the complaints are believed to be about ministers’ failure to deal with concerns expressed by diplomats and officials in the run-up to the Iraq war.

With a general election imminent, details of the investigation could not have come at more sensitive time. Tony Blair has been heavily criticised for his informal style of government which has prompted complaints about presentation stifling Whitehall.

It is rare for the management practices inside a government department to be subjected to NAO scrutiny.

The First Division Association (FDA), the union representing the most senior civil servants, is also understood to have serious concerns about the Foreign Office.

It has hired an independent consultant to assess complaints made privately about the department by serving officials.

The consultant is thought to have concluded that there is a serious problem.

The FDA’s report has been sent to Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, who will come under pressure from Tory MPs in parliament this week to issue a statement.

The Sunday Times detailed last year how the department’s personnel unit “systematically mistreated” and bullied staff.

A former Foreign Office official claimed that the personnel office had a white marker board on the wall headed “Tosser of the week” on which staff were encouraged to write disparaging remarks about potential recruits and existing personnel.

The official said: “We were encouraged to write derogatory remarks about anyone who was annoying or who we were upset with.”

Clive Howard, an employment law specialist with the solicitors Russell Jones & Walker who has been contacted by dissatisfied diplomats, said: “The Foreign Office appears to have institutional failings in the way it deals with its staff.”

The Foreign Office and the NAO declined to comment yesterday.

View with comments

Craig Murray’s Campaign Diary (1)

The first entry from Craig Murray’s campaign diary is published in today’s Guardian. Here is the full unedited text:

Campaign Diary

Part I – No room at the Inn – or the Brewery

The idea of my standing against Jack Straw in Blackburn at the general election had been born in conversation with Andrew Gilligan, when he was interviewing me for the Channel 4 Documentary Torture – the Dirty Business shown last Tuesday.

I had been talking about Jack Straw’s role in approving the use by MI6 of information obtained under torture by the Uzbek security services. Gilligan’s film had shown that the same was happening in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, and that the CIA were kidnapping terrorist suspects around the globe and shipping them to places where they could be tortured.

I have the advantage of having seen some of the so-called intelligence this process produces, and know it to be nonsense aimed at exaggerating the role, strength and links of Al-Qaida and Bin Laden. Yet the government wishes to be able, on the meagre strength of such intelligence, to keep people detained or under house arrest indefinitely, without access to fair trial.

Both Clark and Blair smugly cite “intelligence” as though it were some infallible source of information to which only the trustworthy few – ie them – have access.

In fact this intelligence is dead dodgy, about as reliable as a racing tip from a bent jockey. If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider the dossier of lies on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Anyway, Gilligan and I were discussing how to hold Straw accountable for his decision on torture material, for the WMD dossier (he is, after all, in charge of MI6, a fact Hutton almost failed to notice), and for the illegal war on Iraq. This is meant to be a democracy, I mused. Why not challenge him at the polls, in his own backyard?

I boldly declared I would go ahead and challenge Straw. News of it spread, and I found I had somehow passed a point of no return. It had to be done.

I hope to give Straw a run for his money in Blackburn. But still more, I hope that I will be able to keep the media focus on the torture, human rights and illegal war. This is of course precisely what Blair doesn’t want. “Let’s move on from that” is his mantra.

Am I the only one to find this insulting? I think I’ll rob a bank to fund my election campaign. When the police come to arrest me, I shall say: “Hey, let’s move on from that. OK I robbed a bank, but that was last week. You should see my great plans for the future. I realise that robbing the bank may have raised some trust issues, but I think if you will really listen to me we can establish a dialogue and overcome those.”

Anyway it was now time to translate my resolve into action on the ground. After a day of London media interviews, at seven o clock in the evening I set out from Shepherd’s Bush in a freezing, driving rain for a preparatory visit to my prospective constituents.

The first part of the trip was in a Virgin Pendalino train. I can’t say I noticed it tilting, but it got me to Manchester fast, comfortably and efficiently. Two more changes of train saw me arriving in Blackburn just on midnight on a local service. It was a bitterly cold night with sharp specks of snow. The local train had no heating system and reminded me of a Polish tram of the communist era.

I had not booked a hotel, figuring that Blackburn was the sort of place that would be bound to have a big old Victorian station hotel. I had visions of a large bed, velvet curtains and piping hot cast iron radiators. Well it did, but it shut. There were several vans of very cold looking policemen at the railway station, for no apparent reason. I asked one where I might find a hotel, and he replied, cryptically: “You’ll be lucky.”

After a frozen plod through the snow, I came to a mini-cab firm, and a very chirpy driver called Ajit bundled me into his people carrier. He explained that the Blackburn Rovers vs Burnley FA Cup 5th Round replay had just finished. The two being neighbours and bitter rivals, the game was the biggest event in Blackburn for a long time. The hotels would be full with supporters, he opined.

I had known the game was on, but told Ajit that Burnley being just down the road, I had not expected the hotels would be affected. He said that the hotels were full not of Burnley but of Blackburn supporters; they came from all over for matches. I presume this is a Blackburn diaspora; in England it is only at Old Trafford that the majority of so-called fans have no connection to the local population.

Anyway, Ajit was sure that the Travel Inn would have rooms. It didn’t, but then he was sure that the Travel Lodge would have rooms. After that we tried the Fernhurst, the Bear, the Woodlands, the Hilltop and a couple of others. Not the Chimneys though – Ajit warned me they were rum folk at the Chimneys.

Ajit remained continually cheerful and optimistic, and I am quite sure he didn’t deliberately keep ferrying across town in a series of five mile swings, but soon it was 1.30am there was ?40 on the clock and still nowhere to sleep. Ajit had suggested trying outside Blackburn, but I was loathe to go scuttling ignominiously away at the start of my first visit. Finally, however, I had to admit defeat and we took a brief trip down the motorway to the Preston Novotel. It was an inauspicious start to my Balckburn campaign; there was no room at the inn.

The next morning I took a taxi into town and stood outside Blackburn Cathedral clutching my bag, my hands turning blue with cold. I headed into the visitor centre to get a coffee, and bumped into a documentary crew making a film about MPAC, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. They had filmed me last week meeting MPAC to discuss the Blackburn campaign, so we greeted each other. I sat down to drink my coffee, and they filmed me doing it.

Revived, I went out to scout around for a vacant shop I could rent as an HQ for three months. There were several suitable looking empty shops available. I also called on letting agents to find somewhere to live for three months, but they all said the minimum let was six months.

All the shops to let seemed to use the same agent, Trevor Dawson. I telephoned this company and explained what I wanted and why. They replied rather cryptically that commercial property owners in Blackburn would not want to be associated with any campaign against Jack Straw. Nonetheless I asked them to check the availability of two shops which particularly interested me.

I bought a local newspaper; I saw a Blackburn labour councillor had just been convicted of vote rigging, and been told by the judge to expect a custodial sentence. The rigging had been using postal ballots among the Muslim community.

Blackburn’s Muslim community is primarily Gujerati, and has traditionally been a bulwark of Straw’s support. By chance, Jack Straw went on an official visit to Gujerat only last week, where he made much of Home Office proposals to make it easier to get visas to visit relatives (I’ll believe that when I see it). The Mail on Sunday was distasteful enough to suggest that this pre-election visit was electioneering at public expense.

The host authorities have said that the initiative to visit Gujerat specifically came from the Biritish side. I have put in a request to the FCO under the Freedom of Information Act for papers relating to the genesis of this visit; doubtless these will clear Jack’s name of any electioneering purpose.

Straw is a master of Labour machine politics and of the use of patronage; he has made two patriarchs of his constituency Gujerati community members of the House of Lords. One of Lord Patel’s daughters has a well paid job on the board of the local NHS Trust; the rumour in the pubs of Blackburn is that she has only turned up twice.

There is much speculation that the War on Terror will turn the Muslim vote against Straw, but the ennobled leadership remains firmly behind him. There is a thought that disillusioned young Muslims might split from the leadership, but this is where the postal ballot comes in.

The great disadvantage of the secret ballot is that, whatever social pressure you may have exerted, you have no idea what the individual does in the ballot box. This is where Labour’s innovation of widespread postal voting is so helpful to them. Community patriarchs can insist on inspecting the ballots before voting, something they couldn’t do in the polling station. Or they can even collect up all the postal ballots and fill them in themselves, which is precisely what the Blackburn Labour councillor was convicted of.

It is going to be very interesting to watch what happens with postal ballots in this election in Blackburn certainly, but elsewhere as well. I for one am deeply suspicious of Blair’s enthusiasm for them.

At lunchtime I am surprised by a phone call from a television crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They are at Blackburn station. They are making a documentary about me, but I thought I had given them the slip. Evidently not, and for the rest of the day the citizens of Blackburn are mildly surprised by the sight of me wandering round in the snow being filmed by a bunch of Australians, who seem particularly keen on repeated shots of me walking purposefully and

gazing nobly into the distance.

Before going on to an interview with Radio Lancashire, I do one with the Australian correspondent, Evan Williams. We take off our coats and are seated on a bench outside the cathedral; small spears of ice are sweeping horizontally into my face. I struggle against the cold and wind to explain why I’m standing in Blackburn. Goodness knows what Australian audiences will think of this: “Here’s some pommie nutter sitting in a churchyard in a blizzard. Must be a reality TV endurance show.”

The Australians follow me in to Radio Lancashire, filming away. I am interviewed by Chris Ryder, who is relentlessly hostile. He starts off by saying “Are you standing against Jack Straw just because he sacked you”. Questions include “You do realise that Jack Straw’s an extremely popular constituency MP?”

I immediately concede I have no local background, and as yet very little knowledge of Blackburn, but he still ploughs through a dozen questions aimed at hammering this home. I make my points about torture, intelligence, house arrest, and illegal war. . He doesn’t respond to anything I say. He is reading from a list of questions and doesn’t deviate from them, whatever I am saying. I wonder where they were prepared. The interview is pre-recorded, although I had requested live. I wonder how many of my more telling points will actually get broadcast.

As we leave I give the Australians – who are still filming – a wry grin. “Jeez, what a wanker” says Evan. I hope they leave that bit in. Come to think of it, I hope the Guardian leave it in too.

In the evening I do a tour of the pubs. Blackburn is blessed with excellent beer from the big Thwaites brewery, still family owned. Thwaites cask beer is a real classic. Blackburn also has a micro brewery, 3Bs. This produces some really good beers, including a mild, Stoker’s Slake, full of burnt and caramelly flavours and a potent reminder of how much we are losing as this style of beer becomes increasingly rare.

I have managed to get a room at the Fernhurst Hotel – also owned by Thwaites – and finally get to sleep in my chosen constituency.

The next morning brings good news. The two shops I specified are both available. They both belong to Thwaites. I choose the one on Lower Church Street, behind the vast modern shopping centre. It has two pubs to its immediate right and one to its left. Only one of these three – the Sun – is working.

That is one of Blackburn’s most striking features. It has an astonishing number of ex-pubs. Some have been converted to other uses, but many more are derelict. Blackburn has closed more pubs than other cities had in the first place. I wonder why there were so many and what factors caused this cull. Something else I have yet to learn.

I meet an old acquaintance from University, Stuart, who is a former Blackburn Tory councillor and also a printer. We go to his offices in India Mill, a great cathedral to manufacturing vacated by Coates Viyella when the British textile industry collapsed in the eighties. It has a great chimney styled as a Venetian campanile – I remember watching Fred Dibnah climb it on TV. From Stuart’s windows you can look out on the great Crown wallpaper factory, closed three years ago. We design posters and leaflets.

I feel the campaign is really getting underway. I go to the local newspaper offices and give an interview to a thoughtful young reporter named Caroline. She looks to have forty years less experience of journalism than Chris Ryder; forty years less narrowing of the mind. Then it’s parading up and down outside the cathedral again, while the local paper take photographs.

I put in a classified ad for a house to rent. Then I go off to meet some Asian community leaders, who seem pretty enthused before boarding a train to Chesterfield. There I am a guest speaker at the Green Party conference. I am on good emotional form and get a very enthusiastic standing ovation when I finish. I feel things are going well.

Back in London I have messages waiting for me to call Martin Bell and Brian Eno. I do so, and both want to help my campaign. The warm glow of this is quickly dissipated by news from the Estate Agent. Thwaites Brewery have decided they will not let me rent any of their property in Blackburn. Their estates manager had been overruled by directors who felt it would not be in the company’s interests to allow their premises to be used to campaign against Jack Straw.

This causes me to re-assess soberly what I had achieved on my first showing in Blackburn. Not much. And while my emails are full of offers from talented people to write copy, handle media and design the website, I still have nothing solid in place locally.

Next week I will be conducting the Blackburn campaign from the Austrian Institute of International Affairs, who have asked me to lecture in Vienna. As the phoney general election breaks into real hostilities, this campaign diary will become increasingly frequent.

www.craigmurray.co.uk

View with comments

The Guardian – Our man in Blackburn

The Guardian – Our man in Blackburn (by Craig Murray)

The idea of my standing against Jack Straw in Blackburn at the general election was born in conversation with Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan was making a documentary about torture and he and I were discussing Straw’s decision to approve the use by MI6 of information obtained under torture by the Uzbek security services. I was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan until October, when I was removed from my post after criticising this practice. How could one hold Straw accountable for his decision? Or, for that matter, for the WMD dossier (he is, after all, in charge of MI6), or for the illegal war on Iraq? I declared I would go ahead and challenge Straw in his own backyard.

Taking the train to Blackburn, I arrive at midnight. It is bitterly cold with sharp specks of snow in the air. I haven’t booked a hotel, figuring that Blackburn is the sort of place to have a big old Victorian station hotel. I have visions of a large bed, velvet curtains and piping-hot, cast-iron radiators. Instead, I am met at the station by several vans of very cold-looking policemen. I ask one where I might find a hotel.

“You’ll be lucky,” he replies.

After a frozen plod through the snow, I come to a mini-cab firm, and a very chirpy driver called Ajit. He explains that the Blackburn Rovers v Burnley FA Cup 5th round replay has just finished, the biggest event in Blackburn for a long time. The hotels will be full with supporters. He’s right; I end up sleeping in the Preston Novotel.

The next morning I take a taxi into town to find a vacant shop I can rent as my HQ. There are several suitable-looking sites available and they all seem to use the same agent. I telephone the company and explain what I want, and why. They reply that commercial property owners in Blackburn would not want to be associated with any campaign against Jack Straw. I ask them, all the same, to check the availability of two shops. Then I buy a local newspaper, where I read that a Blackburn Labour councillor has just been convicted of rigging postal ballots among the Muslim community, and told to expect a custodial sentence.

Blackburn’s Muslim community is primarily Gujarati, and has traditionally been a bulwark of Straw’s support. By chance, Straw went on an official visit to Gujarat only last month, where he made much of Home Office proposals to make it easier to get visas to visit relatives. I have put in a request to the FCO under the Freedom of Information Act for papers relating to the genesis of this visit; doubtless these will clear Straw’s name of any electioneering purpose.

There is much speculation that the war on terror will turn the Muslim vote against Straw, but the ennobled local leadership – he has made two patriarchs of his constituency’s Gujarati community members of the House of Lords – remains firmly behind him. There is a thought that disillusioned young Muslims might split from the leadership; this is where the postal ballot comes in.

The great disadvantage of a secret ballot is that, whatever social pressure you may have exerted, you have no idea what the individual does in the ballot box. With a postal ballot, community patriarchs can insist on inspecting the ballots before voting. Or they can even collect up all the postal ballots and fill them in themselves, which is precisely what the Blackburn Labour councillor was convicted of doing.

At lunchtime I am surprised by a phone call from a television crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. They are making a documentary about me, but I thought I had given them the slip. Evidently not; they are at Blackburn station. For the rest of the day, they follow me around.

The next morning brings good news. The two shops I specified are both available. They both belong to the local brewer, Thwaites. The one I choose has two pubs to its immediate right and one to its left. Only one of them is a going concern.

This is one of Blackburn’s most striking features. It has an astonishing number of ex-pubs. Some have been converted to other uses, but many more are derelict. I wonder why there were so many and what factors caused this cull. Something else I have yet to learn.

I return to London to find messages waiting from Martin Bell and Brian Eno; both want to help my campaign. Then I receive news from the estate agent. Thwaites has decided it will not let me rent any of its property in Blackburn. Its directorsfeel it would not be in the company’s interests to allow its premises to be used to campaign against Jack Straw.

www.craigmurray.co.uk

This column will appear in G2 every Thursday until the election.

View with comments

The Guardian – No escape from the war

The Guardian – No escape from the war (by Andrew Murray)

The front benches of both main parties would like to fight the forthcoming election on the Basil Fawlty principle of “don’t mention the war”. They will not be so lucky. The invasion and occupation of Iraq – and the British public’s sustained opposition to it – continues to cast a long shadow over British politics. Some are so anxious to “draw a line and move on” that they simply court ridicule. A correspondent to this paper from South Shields called for an end to “carping” about the “Iraq misadventure”. Carping? Misadventure? The Iraq war is a huge crime which has led to up to 100,000 civilian deaths, the deaths of 1,600 US and British soldiers, the ruination of a country, and the trashing of international law and the authority of the UN.

It also involved, it is now clear, the deception of the British parliament and people, from the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the content of the attorney general’s legal green light for the war. To suggest it is somehow unreasonable or obsessive to dwell on these matters or hold those responsible to account is to negate the essence of democracy. One must hope that if any power were ever to do to South Shields what was done to Falluja, we would do more than carp about it.

There are four reasons why the Iraq war and the issues raised by it – the focus of this Saturday’s anti-war march in London – deserve to remain at the top of the political agenda. First, we must bear witness to the fact that on every point, the 2 million people who demonstrated against aggression on February 15 2003 have been shown to be correct, while those making the case for the war have been proved disastrously mistaken at best, reckless liars at worst. Whether it was WMD, the legality of the war or the consequences for Iraq of foreign military occupation, those who marched knew better than our rulers. That is a democratic lesson that bears repetition.

Second, we must demand that the occupation is brought to a speedy end, our troops brought home, and full sovereignty restored to the Iraqi people. If you needed any further argument as to why the British and US military are utterly unfit to exercise control over Iraqis, surely the abuse of prisoners, photographed for posterity by their tormentors, provides it. The US-manipulated elections have done nothing to weaken the case for an end to occupation or Iraqis’ overwhelming desire for thewithdrawal of British and American troops. If anything, the opposite is true.

Third, the “war on terror” is cutting closer to home than ever, with centuries-old civil rights being scrapped on grounds which closely resemble those used to promote the war against Iraq. The anti-war movement adopted defence of civil liberties as a key objective from the outset. We can neither place all our faith in peers, nor on ministers who believe it is acceptable for British Muslims to be targeted for stop-and-searches. We are proud that human rights campaigners like Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti and the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, are now sharing our platforms.

Fourth, the threat of new wars, including an extension of conflict in the Middle East to Syria or Iran has to be taken extremely seriously. The Washington neo-conservatives are brutally frank about their objectives and we must assume they will try to attain as many as possible, by force if necessary, over the next four years.

When George Bush demands Syrian troops leave Lebanon “because you cannot hold free and fair elections under foreign military occupation”, it might be tempting to think he is indulging in self-parody. But experience suggests this administration is never so dangerous as when it sounds most absurd.

Already, the repeated mobilisation of British “people power” over the past three years has made it extraordinarily difficult for a British government to support any further wars. The war party has comprehensively lost the argument – that is presumably why, in recent months, it has turned to increasingly desperate attacks on the anti-war movement.

Some of the charges against us are true: we are proud to work with Muslims, many of whom have been brought into active politics for the first time. We recognise that an invaded people will resist occupation and has the right to do so. Many of our organisers are of the left, and defend its traditions against those who would prostitute them in the service of US power.

The anti-war movement has spoken the truth on behalf of millions of citizens – there should not be a single parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming election able to hide from it.

? Andrew Murray is chair of the Stop the War Coalition and author, with Lindsey German, of Stop the War – The story of Britain’s biggest mass movement, published this week.

View with comments

The Circle – All the Good Torture Jobs Are Being Sent Overseas

The Circle – All the Good Torture Jobs Are Being Sent Overseas (by Igor Volsky)

Morality extends beyond the bedroom. Yet Americans are still focused on the mating habits of their fellow citizens. When we have sex, with whom we have sex and what results in the wake of that sex has preoccupied and often outraged the public. On the contrary, America’s direct participation in humiliating, immoral and illegal prisoner abuse has garnered only modest indignation. Popular media and Congressional reactionaries have said relatively little of the moral implications of such behavior.

The ideological (liberal) media and the mainstream news organizations have done their part in bringing allegations of prisoner abuse to the front pages of American newspapers. Most recently, former prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guant?namo Bay have complained of female interrogators smearing them with menstrual blood and rubbing them sexually. While Joe Ryan might view the practice more favorably, most Muslims are repulsed. As one journalist put it, “the tact reveals the religious heart of the war: the object is to kill the culture not simply the carrier.”

But Americans are in denial. Stories of sleep deprivation and electric shock first appeared in April of 2003, and as of this writing, not a single civilian official has been held accountable. The release of torture pictures paved the way for countless Congressional hearings, investigations, and condemnations that resulted in nothing more than a bureaucratic big-bang and a public relations campaign that served as a thin veneer for reform.

In a transparent attempt to obscure his administration’s direct involvement, the President publicly censured prison torture and even prosecuted several low-level participants. All the while he has tacitly authorized and approved their behavior. Former Defense Secretary and the administration’s hand-picked abuse-investigator James Schlessinger, found “both institutional and personal responsibility at higher level” as well as “indirect responsibility [that] extended up the chain of command to Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

The Schlessinger Commission stipulated that the contradictory legal opinions of the administration, the inadequate number of detention-facility personnel, and the neglect to provide additional troops once the demand became apparent, (leaving the soldiers on the ground to literally fend for themselves) created confusion and laid the groundwork for the “migration” (this is Schlessinger’s term) of torture from Geneva-unprotected Guant?namo Bay into the Geneva-protected prisons of Iraq.

The author and overseer of these legal opinions was Alberto Gonzales, the current Attorney General and former White House legal council. His nomination and subsequent senate confirmation demonstrates our government’s tacit endorsement of barbarity. Gonzales advised the President to withhold Geneva Convention protections from prisoners in Afghanistan, solicited a memo in August of 2002 that allowed the President to ‘legally’ order torture and narrowly re-define torture as “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” During his senate confirmation, Gonzales did not back away from this assessment.

Taking its legal obligation rather seriously, the Bush administration decided to outsource prison torture to professionals (market capitalism at its best). Shortly after 9/11, in another legal decision, the President abandoned the Clinton practice of transferring suspected terrorists to foreign countries on a case-by-case basis, and authorized the CIA with “expansive authority” to transfer any terrorist suspect to Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordon and Pakistan for interrogation. While the CIA claims that it receives “diplomatic assurances that the prisoner will be treated humanely,” the aforementioned countries are all abuse practitioners and their assurance are not worth the paper they’re printed on.

Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan told 60 Minutes that “the CIA definitely knows [of rendered prisoners being tortured in foreign countries]. I asked my deputy to go and speak to the CIA, and she came back and reported to me that she’d me with the CIA head of station, who told her that ‘Yes, this material probably was obtained under torture, but the CIA didn’t see that a problem.'”

The CIA might not, but the rendered and tortured do. Maher Arar was detained two weeks after 9/11, rendered to Syria, abused, and released a year later without being charged with a crime. In December of 2003, Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, was taken off a bus in south-central Europe, flown on a secret CIA plane to Afghanistan, shackled, repeatedly punched, and questioned about extremists at his mosque in Ulm, Germany. Masri too was released without being charged with a crime.

Speaking on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Michael Scheuer, who created the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit and helped establish renditions under the Clinton administraiton, conceded that the administration is “finding someone else to do [its] dirty work” and admitted that even though cases of mistaken identity are likely, the practice is still worth pursuing. “You do the best you can. It’s not a science … if you make a mistake, you make a mistake.”

Such ‘mistakes’ are not viewed lightly in the Middle East. The problem with renditon is also one of perception. Asked how he explained his prolonged absense to his son, el-Mari said he “explained to him what happened… And he understood, I said it was the Americans [who did this to me].” Mari was not alone. Of all of the prisoners arrested in mass arrests and taken to Abu Ghraib during the spring of 2003, 80-95 percent (according to the army’s own estimates) were innocent civilians. Masri’s explanation has been duplicated, and its implication will be felt in the coming decades.

View with comments

ABC News – CIA Jets Fly the War on Terror

ABC News – CIA Jets Fly the War on Terror (by Brian Ross)

March 7, 2005 ? It is supposed to be top secret, but ABC News found plenty of people who said they knew the true purpose of the airplane hangars at the end of a private two-lane road in rural North Carolina.

“That’s the CIA hangar,” said one airport maintenance worker, pointing out one of the two operating bases in North Carolina for the executive jets used by the CIA to move dozens of suspected terrorists over the last few years to countries well known for using brutality and torture.

The two jets, one a Gulfstream V and the other a Boeing 737, have been spotted at airports around the world, and flight logs shown to ABC News show trips to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Uzbekistan.

The CIA would not officially comment on its operation, known as “extraordinary rendition.” The program began under an executive order signed by President George H.W. Bush in December 1992. Former senior government officials say the program initially involved only a select few terror suspects, but was vastly expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“This needs to be done very quietly and out of the public’s eye,” said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI agent who is now an ABC News consultant. “It’s an integral part of the war on terrorism.”

Information Through Torture

A former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, says the CIA brought many prisoners to the Central Asian nation for interrogation, knowing full well that the Uzbeks would use torture during interrogation.

He said he knew of one case where an Uzbek prisoner was boiled to death.

“The Uzbeks very regularly used very brutal torture,” Murray said. “A lot of beating, breaking of limbs, smashing of limbs, smashing of teeth, pulling away skin with pliers, pulling out fingernails and toenails.”

Murray said his deputy confronted the CIA station chief in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, about whether information was obtained under torture.

“And he replied, it probably was obtained under torture, but the CIA does not see that as a problem,” Murray said.

The CIA denies any such meeting took place in Tashkent.

‘Snag’em and Drag’em’

The rendition program has been denounced in Sweden after two suspected terrorists in Stockholm were turned over to the United States, sent to Egypt on a CIA plane and allegedly tortured.

In Italy, a federal magistrate is investigating whether the Aviano Air Base, a facility in northeastern Italy used by U.S. forces, was used in a CIA scheme to grab terror suspect Hassan Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, off the streets of Milan and ship him off to Egypt.

Such operations are a well-known technique, according to Cloonan, and are known in intelligence circles as “snag ’em and drag ’em.”

Capt. Eric Elliot, the base’s chief of public affairs, told ABC News that U.S. officials have been asked about information regarding the disappearance of Abu Omar and that they “have agreed to assist in the investigation.”

Another Abu Ghraib?

A German citizen, Khaled el Masri, says he was taken on a CIA plane and sent to Afghanistan where he says he was stripped, beaten and abused.

He was interrogated by American agents for months, el Masri said, and at one point was told “you are here in a land where there are no laws. No one knows about you or where you are.”

El Masri was released by the United States after four months without being charged with any crime.

And others have come forward with their stories as well. Maher Arar, a Canadian, was sent to Syria in 2003 where he says he was tortured for 10 months. Mamdouh Habib, an Australian, claims he was transferred by U.S. agents from Pakistan to Egypt in 2001, where he says he was tortured for six months before being taken to Guantanamo Bay.

Some officials have already begun to decry the consequences of the rendition program.

“Like Abu Ghraib, it took a while for the outrage to build,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “The more the American people find out we are allowing other countries to torture in our name, there is going to be an outcry across this country.”

View with comments

Criticism of the ‘war on terror’ not acceptable in the civil service

Nouse – Taking a stand against human rights abuses: From a British perspective, Mr. Murray observes that a “terrible thing happened in the Civil Service” following the September 11th attacks. Criticism of the new ‘war on terror’, he argues, is increasingly unacceptable within a Civil Service that is no longer impartial. He ascribes this particularly to the close cooperation between the Blair government and the Bush administration.

His criticism of Labour also extends to issues of civil liberties within the U.K. Discussing the new anti-terror legislation proposed by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke, he asks: “who’s seen the emergency?” Adding that “nobody in the U.K. has ever been killed by an Islamic terrorist”, he likens the situation to a “case of the emperor’s new clothes”. His suspicion at the justification offered for abuses of human rights both abroad and at home is all too evident. We have, he argues, “lost all perspective of legality in international relations”. This is a grim assessment to be made by a man who until last year was responsible for high-level diplomacy.

View with comments

CBS News – 60 Minutes – CIA Flying Suspects To Torture?

CBS News – 60 Minutes – CIA Flying Suspects To Torture?

(CBS) You may not have heard the term “rendition,” at least not the way the Central Intelligence Agency uses it. But renditions have become one of the most important secret weapons in the war on terror.

In recent years, well over 100 people have disappeared or been “rendered” all around the world. Witnesses tell the same story: masked men in an unmarked jet seize their target, cut off his clothes, put him in a blindfold and jumpsuit, tranquilize him and fly him away.

They’re describing U.S. agents collaring terrorism suspects. Some notorious terrorists such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of 9/11, were rendered this way.

But as Correspondent Scott Pelley reports, it’s happening to many others. Some are taken to prisons infamous for torture. And a few may have been rendered by mistake.

——————————————————————————–

One of the covert missions happened in Stockholm, and the details have touched off a national scandal in Sweden.

Two Egyptians living in Sweden, Mohammad Al-Zery and Ahmed Agiza, were arrested by Swedish police and brought to an airport. An executive jet was waiting with a crew of mysterious masked men.

“America security agents just took over,” says Tomas Hammarberg, a former Swedish diplomat who pressed for and got an investigation into how the Egyptians disappeared.

“We know that they were badly treated on the spot, that scissors and knives were used to take off their clothes. And they were shackled. And some tranquilizers were put in the back of them, obviously in order to make them dizzy and fall asleep.”

An airport officer told 60 Minutes she saw the two men hustled to the plane. She didn’t want to be identified, but she had no doubt about where the plane came from: “I know that the aircraft was American registration … because the ‘N’ first, on the registration.”

The so-called “N” number marks an American plane. Swedish records show a Gulfstream G5, N379P was there that night. Within hours, Al-Zery and Agiza, both of whom had been seeking asylum in Sweden, found themselves in an Egyptian prison. Hammarberg says Sweden sent a diplomat to see them weeks later.

What did they tell the diplomat about how they were being treated?

“That they had been treated brutally in general, had been beaten up several times, that they had been threatened,” says Hammarberg. “But probably the worst phase of torture came after that first visit by the ambassador. … They were under electric torture.”

The Egyptians say Agiza is an Islamic militant and they sentenced him to 25 years. But Al-Zery wasn’t charged. After two years in jail, he was sent to his village in Egypt. The authorities are not allowing interviews.

“The option of not doing something is extraordinarily dangerous to the American people,” says Michael Scheuer, who until three months ago was a senior CIA official in the counterterrorist center. Scheuer created the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit and helped set up the rendition program during the Clinton administration.

“Basically, the National Security Council gave us the mission, take down these cells, dismantle them and take people off the streets so they can’t kill Americans,” says Scheuer. “They just didn’t give us anywhere to take the people after we captured.”

So the CIA started taking suspects to Egypt and Jordan. Scheuer says renditions were authorized by Clinton’s National Security Council and officials in Congress – and all understood what it meant to send suspects to those countries.

“They don’t have the same legal system we have. But we know that going into it,” says Scheuer. “And so the idea that we’re gonna suddenly throw our hands up like Claude Raines in ‘Casablanca’ and say, ‘I’m shocked that justice in Egypt isn’t like it is in Milwaukee,’ there’s a certain disingenuousness to that.”

“And one of the things that you know about justice in Egypt is that people get tortured,” says Pelley.

“Well, it can be rough. I have to assume that that’s the case,” says Scheuer.

But doesn’t that make the United States complicit in the torture?

“You’ll have to ask the lawyers,” says Scheuer.

Is it convenient?

“It’s convenient in the sense that it allows American policy makers and American politicians to avoid making hard decisions,” says Scheuer. “Yes. It’s very convenient. It’s finding someone else to do your dirty work.”

The indispensable tool for that work is a small fleet of executive jets authorized to land at all U.S. military bases worldwide.

Scheuer wouldn’t tell 60 Minutes about the planes that are used in these operations – that information is classified. The CIA declined to talk about it, but it turns out the CIA has left plenty of clues out in the open, in the public record.

The tail number of the Gulfstream was first reported by witnesses in Pakistan. In public records, the tail number came back to a company called Premiere Executive Transport Services, with headquarters listed in Dedham, Mass. But Dedham is a dead end. The address is a law office on the second floor of a bank — there’s no airline there.

But there was one thing in the records that did lead somewhere – a second tail number. That number belonged to an unmarked 737. 60 Minutes found the jet in Scotland, apparently refueling. It’s possible to track these plans by their flight plans. Often the information is on the Internet.

Using the Web and aviation sources, 60 Minutes was able to find 600 flights to 40 countries. It appears the number of flights increased greatly in the Bush administration after Sept. 11.

The planes are based in North Carolina. They usually fly to Dulles Airport outside Washington before heading overseas. Major destinations read like a roadmap to the war on terror – 30 trips to Jordan, 19 to Afghanistan, 17 to Morocco, 16 to Iraq. Other stops include Egypt, Libya, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The flight log shows one flight took the 737 to Skopje, Macedonia, to Baghdad and finally Kabul, Afghanistan. 60 Minutes found a man who says he was on that flight.

Khaled el-Masri was born in Kuwait, but he now lives in Germany with his wife and four children. He became a German citizen 10 years ago. He told 60 Minutes he was on vacation in Macedonia last year when Macedonian police, apparently acting on a tip, took him off a bus, held him for three weeks, then took him to the Skopje airport where he believes he was abducted by the CIA.

“They took me to this room, and they hit me all over and they slashed my clothes with sharp objects, maybe knives or scissors,” says el-Masri.

“I also heard photos being taken while this was going on – and they took off the blindfold and I saw that there were a lot of men standing in the room. They were wearing black masks and black gloves.”

El-Masri says he was injected with drugs, and after his flight, he woke up in an American-run prison in Afghanistan. He showed 60 Minutes a prison floor plan he drew from memory. He says other prisoners were from Pakistan, Tanzania, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. El-Masri told 60 Minutes that he was held for five months and interrogated by Americans through an interpreter.

“He yelled at me and he said that, ‘You’re in a country without laws and no one knows where you are. Do you know what that means?’ I said yes,” says el-Masri. “It was very clear to me that he meant I could stay in my cell for 20 years or be buried somewhere, and nobody knows what happened to you.”

He says they were asking him “whether I had contacts with Islamic parties like al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood or aid organizations, lots of questions.”

He says he told the Americans he’d never been involved in militant Islam. El-Masri says he wasn’t tortured, but he says he was beaten and kept in solitary confinement. Then, after his five months of questioning, he was simply released.

At that point, did anyone ever tell him that they’d made a mistake? “They told me that they had confused names and that they had cleared it up, but I can’t imagine that,” says el-Masri. “You can clear up switching names in a few minutes.”

He says he was flown out of Afghanistan and dumped on a road in Albania. When he finally made his way back home in Germany, he found that his wife and kids had gone to her family in Lebanon. He called there to explain what happened.

El-Masri says that his wife believed him: “I never lied to her, and my appearance showed that I had been in prison.”

How did he explain what happened to him to his son? “I explained to him what happened to me. And he understood,” says el-Masri. “I said it was the Americans [who did this to me].”

“How do you know if you’re picking up the right people,” Pelley asked Scheuer.

“You do the best you can. It’s not a science,” says Scheuer. “It’s gathering as much information as you can, deciding on the quality of it and then determining the risks the person poses. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake.”

There’s another destination that 60 Minutes noticed frequently in the plane’s flight logs: Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a predominately Muslim country, with a reputation for torture.

Craig Murray is the former British ambassador there. He told 60 Minutes that Uzbek citizens, captured in Afghanistan, were flown back to Taskent on the American plane.

“I know of two instances for certain of prisoners who were brought back in a small jet, and I believe it was happening on a reasonably regular basis,” says Murray.

Murray says the jet was operated by Premiere Executive Airlines.

He says in Uzbekistan, many prisoners are subject to torture techniques straight out of the Middle Ages: “Techniques of drowning and suffocation, rape was used quite commonly, and also immersion of limbs in boiling liquid.”

Murray complained to his superiors that British intelligence was using information gleaned by torture. He was recalled by London four months ago and quit the foreign service.

Is there any reason to believe that the CIA knows that people are being tortured in these jails?

“The CIA definitely knows. I asked my deputy to go and speak to the CIA, and she came back and reported to me that she’d me with the CIA head of station, who told her that ‘Yes, this material probably was obtained under torture, but the CIA didn’t see that a problem.'”

The CIA disputes that. The agency told 60 Minutes that the meeting Murray described didn’t happen. The CIA also says it does not knowingly receive intelligence obtained by torture.

President Bush, in a January interview with the New York Times, said: “Torture is never acceptable.” He added, “nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.”

Scheuer says, in his experience, the United States asks receiving countries to promise that suspects will be treated according to the laws of that country.

“I’m not completely confident that any of the information received was exacted by torture,” says Scheuer.

In Egypt?

“In Egypt. Again, I think we have people in the Middle East in the various services we deal with who are extraordinarily experienced in debriefing people,” says Scheuer.

“I personally think that any information gotten through extreme methods of torture would probably be pretty useless because it would be someone telling you what you wanted to hear. The information we have received as a result of these programs has been very useful to the United States.”

“And if some of that useful information is gleaned by torture, that’s OK,” asks Pelley.

“It’s OK with me,” says Scheuer. “I’m responsible for protecting Americans.”

Scheuer says in the Clinton and Bush administrations, and in Congress, details of rendition flights were known to top officials. Now that the missions are coming to light, Scheuer says there is worry in the CIA that field agents will take the fall if any of the missions are later deemed illegal.

Are CIA people feeling vulnerable to that?

“I think from the first day we ever did it there was a certain macabre humor that said sooner or later this sword of Damocles is gonna fall because if something goes wrong, the policy maker and the politicians and the congressional committees aren’t gonna belly up to the bar and say, ‘We authorized this,'” says Scheuer.

? MMV, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.

View with comments

Channel 4 – Torture; the dirty business (link updated 13.11.05)

Channel 4’s shocking documentary, “Torture; the dirty business” was broadcast on Tuesday 1 March 2005. In the documentary, Craig Murray talks in detail about the torture cases he investigated as Britain’s Ambassador to Uzbekistan, and his objections to the use by the UK government of information gained by the Uzbek authorities through torture.

To view the documentary click here. Its a large file so please be patient! (RealPlayer required).

View with comments

Association for Democracy in Uzbekistan – Confidential letters

Association for Democracy in Uzbekistan – Confidential letters

RECEIPT OF INTELLIGENCE OBTAINED UNDER TORTURE

Between 7,000 and 10,000 political and religious prisoners are currently detained, many after trials before kangaroo courts with no representation. Terrible torture is commonplace: the EU is currently considering a demarche over the terrible case of two Muslims tortured to death in jail apparently with boiling water. Two leading dissidents, Elena Urlaeva and Larissa Vdovna, were two weeks ago committed to a lunatic asylum, where they are being drugged, for demonstrating on human rights. Opposition political parties remain banned. There is no doubt that September 11 gave the pretext to crack down still harder on dissent under the guise of counter-terrorism…

Confidential letters from Ambassador Craig Murray…

——————————————————————————–

Letter #1

Confidential

FM Tashkent

TO FCO, Cabinet Office, DFID, MODUK, OSCE Posts, Security Council Posts

16 September 02

SUBJECT: US/Uzbekistan: Promoting Terrorism

SUMMARY

US plays down human rights situation in Uzbekistan. A dangerous policy: increasing repression combined with poverty will promote Islamic terrorism. Support to Karimov regime a bankrupt and cynical policy.

DETAIL

The Economist of 7 September states: “Uzbekistan, in particular, has jailed many thousands of moderate Islamists, an excellent way of converting their families and friends to extremism.” The Economist also spoke of “the growing despotism of Mr Karimov” and judged that “the past year has seen a further deterioration of an already grim human rights record”. I agree.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 political and religious prisoners are currently detained, many after trials before kangaroo courts with no representation. Terrible torture is commonplace: the EU is currently considering a demarche over the terrible case of two Muslims tortured to death in jail apparently with boiling water. Two leading dissidents, Elena Urlaeva and Larissa Vdovna, were two weeks ago committed to a lunatic asylum, where they are being drugged, for demonstrating on human rights. Opposition political parties remain banned. There is no doubt that September 11 gave the pretext to crack down still harder on dissent under the guise of counter-terrorism.

Yet on 8 September the US State Department certified that Uzbekistan was improving in both human rights and democracy, thus fulfilling a constitutional requirement and allowing the continuing disbursement of $140 million of US aid to Uzbekistan this year. Human Rights Watch immediately published a commendably sober and balanced rebuttal of the State Department claim.

Again we are back in the area of the US accepting sham reform [a reference to my previous telegram on the economy]. In August media censorship was abolished, and theoretically there are independent media outlets, but in practice there is absolutely no criticism of President Karimov or the central government in any Uzbek media. State Department call this self-censorship: I am not sure that is a fair way to describe an unwillingness to experience the brutal methods of the security services.

Similarly, following US pressure when Karimov visited Washington, a human rights NGO has been permitted to register. This is an advance, but they have little impact given that no media are prepared to cover any of their activities or carry any of their statements.

The final improvement State quote is that in one case of murder of a prisoner the police involved have been prosecuted. That is an improvement, but again related to the Karimov visit and does not appear to presage a general change of policy. On the latest cases of torture deaths the Uzbeks have given the OSCE an incredible explanation, given the nature of the injuries, that the victims died in a fight between prisoners.

But allowing a single NGO, a token prosecution of police officers and a fake press freedom cannot possibly outweigh the huge scale of detentions, the torture and the secret executions. President Karimov has admitted to 100 executions a year but human rights groups believe there are more. Added to this, all opposition parties remain banned (the President got a 98% vote) and the Internet is strictly controlled. All Internet providers must go through a single government server and access is barred to many sites including all dissident and opposition sites and much international media (including, ironically, waronterrorism.com). This is in essence still a totalitarian state: there is far less freedom than still prevails, for example, in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. A Movement for Democratic Change or any judicial independence would be impossible here.

Karimov is a dictator who is committed to neither political nor economic reform. The purpose of his regime is not the development of his country but the diversion of economic rent to his oligarchic supporters through government controls. As a senior Uzbek academic told me privately, there is more repression here now than in Brezhnev’s time. The US are trying to prop up Karimov economically and to justify this support they need to claim that a process of economic and political reform is underway. That they do so claim is either cynicism or self-delusion.

This policy is doomed to failure. Karimov is driving this resource-rich country towards economic ruin like an Abacha. And the policy of increasing repression aimed indiscriminately at pious Muslims, combined with a deepening poverty, is the most certain way to ensure continuing support for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They have certainly been decimated and disorganised in Afghanistan, and Karimov’s repression may keep the lid on for years – but pressure is building and could ultimately explode.

I quite understand the interest of the US in strategic airbases and why they back Karimov, but I believe US policy is misconceived. In the short term it may help fight terrorism but in the medium term it will promote it, as the Economist points out. And it can never be right to lower our standards on human rights. There is a complex situation in Central Asia and it is wrong to look at it only through a prism picked up on September 12. Worst of all is what appears to be the philosophy underlying the current US view of Uzbekistan: that September 11 divided the World into two camps in the “War against Terrorism” and that Karimov is on “our” side.

If Karimov is on “our” side, then this war cannot be simply between the forces of good and evil. It must be about more complex things, like securing the long-term US military presence in Uzbekistan. I silently wept at the 11 September commemoration here. The right words on New York have all been said. But last week was also another anniversary – the US-led overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. The subsequent dictatorship killed, dare I say it, rather more people than died on September 11. Should we not remember then also, and learn from that too? I fear that we are heading down the same path of US-sponsored dictatorship here. It is ironic that the beneficiary is perhaps the most unreformed of the World’s old communist leaders.

We need to think much more deeply about Central Asia. It is easy to place Uzbekistan in the “too difficult” tray and let the US run with it, but I think they are running in the wrong direction. We should tell them of the dangers we see. Our policy is theoretically one of engagement, but in practice this has not meant much. Engagement makes sense, but it must mean grappling with the problems, not mute collaboration. We need to start actively to state a distinctive position on democracy and human rights, and press for a realistic view to be taken in the IMF. We should continue to resist pressures to start a bilateral DFID programme, unless channelled non-governmentally, and not restore ECGD cover despite the constant lobbying. We should not invite Karimov to the UK. We should step up our public diplomacy effort, stressing democratic values, including more resources from the British Council. We should increase support to human rights activists, and strive for contact with non-official Islamic groups.

Above all we need to care about the 22 million Uzbek people, suffering from poverty and lack of freedom. They are not just pawns in the new Great Game.

MURRAY

——————————————————————————–

Letter #2

Confidential

Fm Tashkent

To FCO

18 March 2003

SUBJECT: US FOREIGN POLICY

SUMMARY

1. As seen from Tashkent, US policy is not much focussed on democracy or freedom. It is about oil, gas and hegemony. In Uzbekistan the US pursues those ends through supporting a ruthless dictatorship. We must not close our eyes to uncomfortable truth.

DETAIL

2. Last year the US gave half a billion dollars in aid to Uzbekistan, about a quarter of it military aid. Bush and Powell repeatedly hail Karimov as a friend and ally. Yet this regime has at least seven thousand prisoners of conscience; it is a one party state without freedom of speech, without freedom of media, without freedom of movement, without freedom of assembly, without freedom of religion. It practices, systematically, the most hideous tortures on thousands. Most of the population live in conditions precisely analogous with medieval serfdom.

3. Uzbekistan’s geo-strategic position is crucial. It has half the population of the whole of Central Asia. It alone borders all the other states in a region which is important to future Western oil and gas supplies. It is the regional military power. That is why the US is here, and here to stay. Contractors at the US military bases are extending the design life of the buildings from ten to twenty five years.

4. Democracy and human rights are, despite their protestations to the contrary, in practice a long way down the US agenda here. Aid this year will be slightly less, but there is no intention to introduce any meaningful conditionality. Nobody can believe this level of aid – more than US aid to all of West Africa – is related to comparative developmental need as opposed to political support for Karimov. While the US makes token and low-level references to human rights to appease domestic opinion, they view Karimov’s vicious regime as a bastion against fundamentalism. He – and they – are in fact creating fundamentalism. When the US gives this much support to a regime that tortures people to death for having a beard or praying five times a day, is it any surprise that Muslims come to hate the West?

5. I was stunned to hear that the US had pressured the EU to withdraw a motion on Human Rights in Uzbekistan which the EU was tabling at the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. I was most unhappy to find that we are helping the US in what I can only call this cover-up. I am saddened when the US constantly quote fake improvements in human rights in Uzbekistan, such as the abolition of censorship and Internet freedom, which quite simply have not happened (I see these are quoted in the draft EBRD strategy for Uzbekistan, again I understand at American urging).

6. From Tashkent it is difficult to agree that we and the US are activated by shared values. Here we have a brutal US sponsored dictatorship reminiscent of Central and South American policy under previous US Republican administrations. I watched George Bush talk today of Iraq and “dismantling the apparatus of terror? removing the torture chambers and the rape rooms”. Yet when it comes to the Karimov regime, systematic torture and rape appear to be treated as peccadilloes, not to affect the relationship and to be downplayed in international fora. Double standards? Yes.

7. I hope that once the present crisis is over we will make plain to the US, at senior level, our serious concern over their policy in Uzbekistan.

MURRAY

——————————————————————————–

Letter #3

CONFIDENTIAL

FM TASHKENT

TO IMMEDIATE FCO

TELNO 63

OF 220939 JULY 04

INFO IMMEDIATE DFID, ISLAMIC POSTS, MOD, OSCE POSTS UKDEL EBRD LONDON, UKMIS GENEVA, UKMIS MEW YORK

SUBJECT: RECEIPT OF INTELLIGENCE OBTAINED UNDER TORTURE

SUMMARY

1. We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.

2. I gather a recent London interdepartmental meeting considered the question and decided to continue to receive the material. This is morally, legally and practically wrong. It exposes as hypocritical our post Abu Ghraib pronouncements and fatally undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results.

3. We should cease all co-operation with the Uzbek Security Services they are beyond the pale. We indeed need to establish an SIS presence here, but not as in a friendly state.

DETAIL

4. In the period December 2002 to March 2003 I raised several times the issue of intelligence material from the Uzbek security services which was obtained under torture and passed to us via the CIA. I queried the legality, efficacy and morality of the practice.

5. I was summoned to the UK for a meeting on 8 March 2003. Michael Wood gave his legal opinion that it was not illegal to obtain and to use intelligence acquired by torture. He said the only legal limitation on its use was that it could not be used in legal proceedings, under Article 15 of the UN Convention on Torture.

6. On behalf of the intelligence services, Matthew Kydd said that they found some of the material very useful indeed with a direct bearing on the war on terror. Linda Duffield said that she had been asked to assure me that my qualms of conscience were respected and understood.

7. Sir Michael Jay’s circular of 26 May stated that there was a reporting obligation on us to report torture by allies (and I have been instructed to refer to Uzbekistan as such in the context of the war on terror). You, Sir, have made a number of striking, and I believe heartfelt, condemnations of torture in the last few weeks. I had in the light of this decided to return to this question and to highlight an apparent contradiction in our policy. I had intimated as much to the Head of Eastern Department.

8. I was therefore somewhat surprised to hear that without informing me of the meeting, or since informing me of the result of the meeting, a meeting was convened in the FCO at the level of Heads of Department and above, precisely to consider the question of the receipt of Uzbek intelligence material obtained under torture. As the office knew, I was in London at the time and perfectly able to attend the meeting. I still have only gleaned that it happened.

9. I understand that the meeting decided to continue to obtain the Uzbek torture material. I understand that the principal argument deployed was that the intelligence material disguises the precise source, ie it does not ordinarily reveal the name of the individual who is tortured. Indeed this is true – the material is marked with a euphemism such as “From detainee debriefing.” The argument runs that if the individual is not named, we cannot prove that he was tortured.

10. I will not attempt to hide my utter contempt for such casuistry, nor my shame that I work in and organisation where colleagues would resort to it to justify torture. I have dealt with hundreds of individual cases of political or religious prisoners in Uzbekistan, and I have met with very few where torture, as defined in the UN convention, was not employed. When my then DHM raised the question with the CIA head of station 15 months ago, he readily acknowledged torture was deployed in obtaining intelligence. I do not think there is any doubt as to the fact

11. The torture record of the Uzbek security services could hardly be more widely known. Plainly there are, at the very least, reasonable grounds for believing the material is obtained under torture. There is helpful guidance at Article 3 of the UN Convention;

“The competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the state concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.”

While this article forbids extradition or deportation to Uzbekistan, it is the right test for the present

question also.

12. On the usefulness of the material obtained, this is irrelevant. Article 2 of the Convention, to which we are a party, could not be plainer:

“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

13. Nonetheless, I repeat that this material is useless – we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful. It is designed to give the message the Uzbeks want the West to hear. It exaggerates the role, size, organisation and activity of the IMU and its links with Al Qaida. The aim is to convince the West that the Uzbeks are a vital cog against a common foe, that they should keep the assistance, especially military assistance, coming, and that they should mute the international criticism on human rights and economic reform.

14. I was taken aback when Matthew Kydd said this stuff was valuable. Sixteen months ago it was difficult to argue with SIS in the area of intelligence assessment. But post Butler we know, not only that they can get it wrong on even the most vital and high profile issues, but that they have a particular yen for highly coloured material which exaggerates the threat. That is precisely what the Uzbeks give them. Furthermore MI6 have no operative within a thousand miles of me and certainly no expertise that can come close to my own in making this assessment.

15. At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family’s links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services.

16. I have been considering Michael Wood’s legal view, which he kindly gave in writing. I cannot understand why Michael concentrated only on Article 15 of the Convention. This certainly bans the use of material obtained under torture as evidence in proceedings, but it does not state that this is the sole exclusion of the use of such material.

17. The relevant article seems to me Article 4, which talks of complicity in torture. Knowingly to receive its results appears to be at least arguable as complicity. It does not appear that being in a different country to the actual torture would preclude complicity. I talked this over in a hypothetical sense with my old friend Prof Francois Hampson, I believe an acknowledged World authority on the Convention, who said that the complicity argument and the spirit of the Convention would be likely to be winning points. I should be grateful to hear Michael’s views on this.

18. It seems to me that there are degrees of complicity and guilt, but being at one or two removes does not make us blameless. There are other factors. Plainly it was a breach of Article 3 of the Convention for the coalition to deport detainees back here from Baghram, but it has been done. That seems plainly complicit.

19. This is a difficult and dangerous part of the World. Dire and increasing poverty and harsh repression are undoubtedly turning young people here towards radical Islam. The Uzbek government are thus creating this threat, and perceived US support for Karimov strengthens anti-Western feeling. SIS ought to establish a presence here, but not as partners of the Uzbek Security Services, whose sheer brutality puts them beyond the pale.

MURRAY

View with comments

“Should not be known”

Below is an extract from Craig Murray’s book on his experiences as British Ambassador in Tashkent. The book will be published this autumn and is titled “Should not be known”.

Chapter 7 – Awakening

Chris looked pretty amazed. “OK, let’s go” was not a standard reaction from a British Ambassador to the news that a dissident trial was about to start. The Land Rover drew up to the Embassy door and out I went, still feeling pretty uncomfortable at people calling me “Sir”, opening doors and stopping their normal chatter as I passed.

We turned up outside the court, a small wicket entrance through an unprepossessing muddy looking wall into a dirty courtyard containing several squat white buildings. Like much Soviet construction it looked unfinished and barely functional. To enter the courtyard we had to give passport details to two policemen sitting at a table outside the gate. They took an age to write down details in an old ledger with a chewed up pencil; I was to find that the concealment of terrible viciousness behind a homely, amateur exterior was a recurring theme in Uzbekistan.

About a hundred people were hanging about the courtyard waiting for various trials to begin. I was introduced to a variety of scruffy looking individuals who represented different human rights organisations. Even in the ethnic and social kaleidoscope of Tashkent I could readily pick up that their dress was eccentric, ranging from tweed and jumpers apparently knitted poorly out of old socks, to garish Bermuda beachwear with fake designer specs. Puzzlingly the seven or eight I met seemed to belong to the same number of organisations, and it rapidly became clear that they were single member groups, and most of them would not talk to each other.

One short but distinguished looking man, with a shock of white hair and big black specs, was so self-important he wouldn’t talk to anyone at all. Chris, bustling around doing the introductions, pointed to him and said “Mikhail Ardzinov – he says it is for you to call on him”. I looked puzzled, seeing as the question of who called on whom involved taking about eight paces across the courtyard. Chris expounded that Ardzinov was feeling very important, as his group was the only one that was registered, and thus legal. The others were all illegal. Peculiarly, Ardzinov’s registered group was called the “Independent” Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan”. None of this meant much to me at the time, and I certainly hadn’t been an Ambassador long enough to feel my pride mortified by taking eight paces, so I went and shook the man’s hand. I received a long cool stare and very little conversation for my effort.

Even at first meeting, some of these people could not help but impress. One gentleman (and I use the term advisedly) had been a schoolteacher until he was thrown out of his job for refusing to teach the President’s books uncritically. He now spent time at all trials of dissidents, normally the less reported ones in obscure places. He documented them painstakingly by hand, and then sent details to international organisations and Embassies, as well as writing appeals himself. He was apologetic for being at the Khuderbegainov trial, which was renowned and well covered by others, “But I thought I might learn something on general policy”. I asked how he lived and he said largely on the kindness of others. Judging by his clothes, gaunt face and sparse frame, that kindness was a limited commodity. I asked if he was not in danger of arrest. He said he had “only” spent a total of four months in custody in the past three years. An unhealthy flush burned in his cheeks and his eyes alternated between a normal genial twinkle and flashes of real anger. They were unforgettable, yet they are not the eyes I saw that day which haunt me still.

Nor are Dilobar’s. Lovely as she is, I am afraid I cannot recall even the colour of her eyes. But mine had been drifting during the conversation to the full but graceful figure in blue that stood under an old corrugated iron canopy to my left. She stood tall but striking amid a group of older local women in their flowered dresses, velvet jackets and hijabs – a Muslim scarf that in Uzbekistan is colourful and covers the hair but none of the face. Her fine black hair flowed long and free down her back. Her cotton dress was full, reaching right to the neck, wrists and sleeves, and of a light flowing blue, though somehow close fitting around her slim waist. I have always enjoyed seeing as much of girls’ bodies as possible and have always viewed as tosh lines about clothes accentuating rather than obscuring the body, but in this case, gentle reader, I must say it worked on me.

Chris brought her over and introduced her as Dilobar Khuderbegainova. I have never got over the sensations of wonder and fear that I still feel when I find I can actually be in proximity to a beautiful girl. My brain simply freezes. At University I was desperately in love with a girl called Louise Ivinson. I had admired her from afar and even from middle distance, as I was a good friend of her sister. I was one day hanging around her Hall of Residence just in the hope I would see her. After a hard morning of this, I bought a packet of Maltesers for lunch and sat down in the Hall’s TV room to watch the One O’Clock News. In breezed Louise, saw me, marched straight up and said “Hi, Craig. Maltesers – I love Maltesers – can I have one?” My brain froze, my palms sweated, my bowels barely remained under control. I dragged up a word from the stinking ooze that my intellect had fallen into, and the first word that came out was “No”. She never spoke to me again.

It was a bit like that now with Dilobar. I just gaped, taking her in. Something was hammering insistently at my dulled senses. What was wrong – Khuderbegainova – Oh my God! This was the sister of the victim of this show-trial! Yes, her eyes were filling with tears. My God. I was a pervert! Her brother was going to be executed, and I was making out her legs through her dress. I was filled with self-loathing. (I really was, there and then, not just in retrospect). “I am most terribly sorry,” I blurted out. Even then I was still apologising for my own shallowness and stupidity, not for what was happening to her brother, but fortunately it was an appropriate remark for the latter, too, and she took it that way.

She said with great dignity that her brother was a good man, and the whole family would remember me for coming. I thanked her and held out my hand. Oh God, another mistake! Muslim women don’t shake hands with strange men. For a moment she was taken aback but then, she held out her hand and clenched mine firmly, and a smile almost troubled her lips. I wanted to say “Don’t worry” and promise to help, but realistically what could I do – and if I could do nothing why was I there?

Chris was looking at me curiously. “Bit hot” I said, and went and sat down under the tree. As happens so quickly, my momentary self-hate turned to real anger against a system that tortured thousands and executed hundreds, against diplomats for their complacent acquiescence and against the United States for, well, pretty well everything.

We waited two hours in the courtyard for the trial to start (and we had arrived half an hour after it should have). It was 44 centigrade in the shade that day, and we didn’t have much of that in the courtyard. There was a bustle of activity and we then entered a building through a door that led straight into stairs down the basement. The atmosphere changed completely. The short staircase was lined with perhaps twenty paramilitaries – ministry of Interior forces – in grey camouflage carrying machine guns. There was so little space left to pass that a kind of tense scrum developed. I was only about three steps down when one of the militia, for no reason I could discern, pulled me back by the arm. I snapped. Wheeling round I grabbed him by the throat and pushed him back against the wall (admittedly only about three inches, and he was a very small militiaman). I raged uselessly in English “Don’t you touch me, do you hear? Do not touch me.”

Silence fell, and everyone looked aghast. I don’t think the militia knew who I was, but I was obviously foreign and therefore probably not shootable. But these people pushed others about all their lives, and no one ever, ever pushed back. My little militiaman gave a nervous laugh, and chatter just started up again. We carried on down to the courtroom as though nothing had happened.

The atmosphere in the courtyard had been apprehensive but resigned. Now all was tension. The six prisoners were already in the “dock”. This was a large cage constructed roughly out of what looked like concrete reinforcing rods welded together, not straight but strongly, and lots of them. It had then been painted white, again with lashings of paint so thick it had oozed into the spiralled grooves in the rods, and there congealed in thick pendulous blobs. The concrete floor around it was heavily spattered, with thick wrinkled pools of dried white paint at the bottom of each supposedly vertical rod. A cage door was fastened with two enormous padlocks. Fourteen heavily armed militiamen stood shoulder to shoulder around the cage. The six accused squatted low on what looked like two school benches placed inside, with not quite enough room for three men on each.

Loved ones tried to push between the guards to say a few words of encouragement. The accused barely turned their heads, though some managed wan smiles. All were very gaunt, clean-shaven with short shaven hair. Five looked middle age and, from the ripples of skin, as though they had once perhaps been better fleshed. Their hair was whitening. The sixth, Khuderbegainov himself, looked like a teenager (he was 22). He coughed periodically and cast his eyes around quickly and furtively, in contrast to the languor of the others. He looked very skinny indeed, which accentuated features I would judge were already sharp.

Of the six, three had already been in jail for some two years. The charges were multiple but different permutations of the six were charged with a number of different offences. For example three were charged with the armed robbery of a jeweller, four with the murder of two policemen. All were charged with attempting to overthrow the government and undermine the constitution.

This was one of a whole series of trials of Muslim activists in Uzbekistan. I knew some of the statistics already – Human Rights Watch alleged some 7,000 political or religious prisoners. I had heard allegations of torture, but not in detail. And please let me stress to you this next point – in three weeks of Foreign Office and other UK Government briefings prior to my taking up Post, there had been scarcely a mention of human rights at all, and none of torture. The briefing I had been given put the emphasis firstly on FCO internal management procedure, secondly on Uzbekistan’s supportive role in the War on Terror and thirdly on Central Asia’s economic and commercial potential in cotton, other agro-industry and, above all, in oil and gas. I could have written a book on hydrocarbon pipeline options for Central Asia, but nothing had prepared me for the reality of the “War on Terror” as I was about to encounter it.

In the courtyard I had met a very helpful young man called Ole from Human Rights Watch who was going to let me share his Uzbek interpreter in the court. He filled me in on some of the facts. I later checked up on these, and they are true. Two of the people charged with murder had actually been in jail at the time, serving their sentences for “Religious extremism”. And twenty-three other people had already been convicted of these murders. There was no suggestion that they were in conspiracy, or even knew each other, or that the murders had been carried out by a mob. The simple Uzbek government tactic was that a genuine crime (and two policemen had indeed been murdered by someone) would be used to convict lots of opposition people whom the regime happened to want put away or, better still, executed. And they would of course not be political prisoners but common murderers, rapists, or whatever. And that indeed was accepted by the US State Department in its (under) estimate of political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Until I turned up the FCO was no better. In that year – 2002 – some 220 prisoners were officially executed in Uzbekistan, in addition to those murdered in police or security service custody, prison or who simply “disappeared”.

The courtroom was chokingly hot. I felt beads of sweat running down my body, inside my shirt, tickling and dribbling down. The judge looked like first goon out of central casting; swarthy and thick set, floppy hair swept back, dressed in black trousers and a white shirt that strained at his belly. He started out with a harangue at the prisoners for wasting the Court’s time. As the session went on he several times interrupted with a string of gratuitous anti-Muslim remarks.

The jeweller who had suffered the armed robbery said that three of the men, wearing balaclavas had tied him up and held him, robbing him of an improbably large sum of money. They had shot at him with pistols but missed. A defence lawyer was asking him why no bullets or bullet holes had been found in the room. The jeweller supposed rather weakly they had gone out of the window. As he was allegedly tied up on the floor at the time, the defendants must have been very bad shots indeed. The defence lawyer was making hay with this.

The judge had been ostentatiously not listening whenever the defence spoke, whittling at his fingernails with his knife or chatting with the rapporteur, who equally stopped writing whenever the defence or a defendant said anything. But somehow it must have penetrated his thick skin that the prosecution witness was not going down well. He interrupted the defence lawyer with a sharp rebuke for irrelevance, and then instructed the defendants to stand, while he harangued them.

He said that they represented evil in society. They were thieves and murderers who sought to undermine Uzbekistan’s independence and democracy. Their list of crimes was long and it would be better if they admitted it. He concluded that he was astonished that they had found the time to plan and commit so many crimes when they had to stop to pray five times a day. He evidently considered this a hilarious sally and he guffawed loudly, as did the prosecutor, rapporteur and various other cronies. But I swear I noticed a few narrowed eyes among the militiamen. Later he again amused himself hugely by interrupting a defendant who was giving evidence on what he had said. “I don’t suppose anyone could hear you through your long Muslim beard” said the judge, already slapping his ham of a thigh as he delivered the remark. He was a real monster. He several times told the defence to shut up and stop wasting time. As he was the judge and there was no jury, I suppose he had a point.

The jeweller was asked to identify which three of the six had robbed him. He peered uncertainly at the benches – plainly he had no idea. Pressed by the defence he managed – and the odds against this must be very high, perhaps some statistician could work it out – he managed to identify entirely the wrong three out of six. This got the judge very angry. “You are mistaken, you old fool” he bellowed. The judge then read out the names of the three who were charged with the crimes, and asked them to stand. “Are these the men?” He asked the terrified jeweller, who stammered his assent. “Let the record show they were positively identified by the victim,” said the judge.

This was pure farce, but I had to pull myself back and force myself to acknowledge the reality behind this bizarre charade. These six nervous men stood to be shot, their brains blown out, spines smashed, hearts exploded by high velocity bullets. The family would not be informed of the execution, so for months would not know if their loved one was dead, believing him perhaps dead while he still languished, and perhaps alive when he was well rotted. This was a deliberately refined cruelty as was the practice – inherited from the Soviets – that when the family was finally informed of the death, they would be charged for the bullets that killed him.

It was at this minute I was caught by those eyes I will never forget – they were Khuderbegainov’s. He had spotted me in the crowd, a Westerner in a three-piece suit, out of place and time. Who was I? Maybe this strange apparition brought some kind of hope. Maybe the West would do something. Maybe he wasn’t going to die after all. The drowning man had caught a fleeting glimpse of straw on the surface as he went down for the third time. His eyes bored into mine, small, dark, intense, filled with a desperate hope. He was urging me with every mute fibre of his being to do something. And there was hope in those eyes. I looked back. I don’t do telepathy, but I tried to say I will try, in God’s name I will try, with my own eyes. He smiled and nodded, a confidence shared; and then looked away again.

Once more I thought, “My God, what am I doing here. What right have I to give false hope – is that not just one more cruelty?” But then an iron resolve – I would help; I would dedicate every fibre of my being to stop this horror in Uzbekistan. I would not spend three years on the golf course and cocktail circuit. I would not go along with political lies or leave the truth unspoken. The next bit of the trial set that resolve, like catalyst added to epoxy resin.

An old man came to the witness stand. He had to be assisted – he had a little white beard, sparse white hair and wore a black lacquered skullcap and a dull brown quilted gown. He was shaking with fright. One of the accused was his nephew. His statement was read out to him, in which he confirmed that his nephew was a terrorist who stole money to send to Osama Bin Laden.

“Is this your testimony?” asked the prosecutor.

“Yes, but its not true” replied the old man, “They tortured me to say it”.

The judge said that the accused’s accusations of torture had been dismissed earlier in the case. They could not be reintroduced.

“But they tortured me” said the old man “They tortured my grandson. They beat his testicles and put electrodes on his body. They put a mask on him to stop him breathing. They raped him with a bottle. Then they brought my granddaughter and said they would rape her. All the time they said “Osama Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden”. We are poor farmers from Andijan. We are good Muslims, but what do we know of Osama Bin Laden?”

His quavering voice had got stronger, but at this he literally collapsed and was helped out. The judge then stated that the prisoners’ connection with Osama Bin Laden was not in doubt. They had confessed to it themselves.

I had seen enough and left. Those three hours in court had a profound effect on me. If these were our allies in the War on Terror, we were not in the clear moral ground Blair and Bush claimed so braggingly. As I walked through the courtyard a militiaman came running towards me, shouting and pointing. I braced myself; something pretty awful was about to happen. Instead he came up to me and introduced himself as “Bakhtiyor”. It was the man I had grabbed by the throat. He wanted to explain, he said, that he had been pulling me back to save me from the crush. He had wanted to take me into the Court a quieter way. I apologised and felt ashamed. This was all so much harder than I had thought. I wished I were somewhere else

I sent a telegram back to London, explaining in detail what I had seen at the trial. Shortly thereafter sentence of death was passed on Khuderbegainov and long sentences given to his “accomplices”. Human Rights Policy Department in the FCO agreed we should take up the case, and the wheels clunked into the motion for the long process of agreeing an EU demarche, or formal protest.

In the meantime Dilobar and her father came to call on me in my office. She looked still extremely fetching in a lime green outfit, again high collared and long sleeved, in a ribbed cotton material, with a long tunic split at the sides from the hips and flowing almost to the knees, worn over tight trousers of the same material. She was very nervous. We sat round the coffee table in my office, I in an easy chair, Dilobar and her father on the settee next to me, with Chris on a chair opposite me, and Zhenya my secretary seated opposite the settee ready to interpret. Dilobar was nervous, and sat with her hands under her thighs.

I welcomed them, accepted their thanks for attending the trial, and said that I had been shocked by what I saw. I asked the father what they could tell me by way of background to the trial.

This was the first time I had encountered a phenomenon which was to bedevil me for the next two years; the inability of Uzbeks in human rights cases to tell their story in a plain, straightforward or concise manner. This is a phenomenon well recognised by all those working in the field and much discussed. Various reasons are given – sheer terror at saying anything against the government leading to a failure of nerve, the effect of social shaming, a cultural propensity to roundabout story-telling anyway. But the phenomenon is very real, and excruciatingly frustrating.

The Khuderbegainovs are a well-established Tashkent family previously in favour with the regime. The father was a former Head of a Tashkent State radio station. He told me now the story of when he himself had been arrested for questioning, and how they came for him when he was attending a family wedding. He was in tears as he told the story, and seemed unable to get past his despair at being arrested in such a humiliatingly public fashion, and perhaps astonishment (it was too gentle for outrage) that a wedding should be violated. Now weddings hold an important position in most cultures, but Uzbek societies take this to extremes, with a family not infrequently spending three or more years’ total income on a daughter’s wedding. So no doubt it is extremely bad form to violate one. But the poor man, holding back his tears, had spent 45 minutes telling me nothing but that he had been arrested at a wedding, which with his son sentenced to death was hardly the most important point. I felt greatly for his anguish, but if we were to be able to do anything we needed more practical information.

I therefore asked Dilobar to continue the story. I learnt from her that she and her brother had received an education at one of the Saudi funded Arabic schools opened in Tashkent in the 1990s. Following the bombings in Tashkent in 1999 (which most analysts believe were probably planted by the Karimov regime or factions within it), these schools were closed down and many of their pupils and former pupils imprisoned. Eventually this well-connected family received warning that her brother was to be arrested, and her brother ran away to Tajikistan where he made contact with rebel groups. From there he was sent to Afghanistan to fight with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan alongside the Taliban, but he didn’t like what he saw and ran away from there too. For a year he scratched a living as a bazaar trader before eventually being arrested crossing the Tajik/Uzbek border. He had then been imprisoned for some months in Uzbekistan and severely tortured, which had caused permanent liver damage. Eventually he had confessed to the range of crimes featuring in the trial. The family had not known he was imprisoned until the trial began. It was during the period of imprisonment that the father had himself been imprisoned. His brutal interrogation had ostensibly focussed on the whereabouts of his son, which was confusing as his son was already in custody at the time.

How much of this was true it was hard to gauge; I judged that Dilobar believed it herself. I wondered whether this was the whole truth about Khuderbegainov’s involvement with the IMU and the Taliban, but even if it wasn’t, he plainly had not received a fair trial on the charges for which he had been sentenced to death. I thanked the impressively composed and articulate Dilobar and her father, and promised to do what I could. We had already decided to move for an EU demarche, but I was racking my brains for further action that might forestall the execution.

View with comments