“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.