Teeing off in Tashkent

Author: Sam Webber writing in ConcreteOnline

The former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, visited UEA at the end of last term. Having risen quickly through the ranks within the Diplomatic Service, it was a shock when he was suspended from the post in November 2004, before finally being laid off in February of this year. He is now standing as an Independent candidate in the seat of Blackburn at the general election to try and get rid of the sitting MP there – Foreign Secretary Jack Straw – but more of that later.

Murray spoke at a packed meeting on campus, before going to Livewire to be interviewed, and then talking to Concrete’s Political Editor. He gave an incredible insight into the little known country of Uzbekistan, and highlighted the human rights violations taking place within it.

He joined the Diplomatic Service in 1984, after graduating with an MA in Modern History from Dundee University. Journalists have described his career within the Foreign Office as a “model of upward progress”, and one brief glance at his CV would show how successful his career had been up until his recent dismissal. Having briefly worked on the South Africa desk at the Foreign Office in Whitehall, he then went to Lagos in Nigeria, and later to Ghana and Poland. His appointment as an Ambassador, whilst still only in his early 40s, clearly marked the start of even bigger opportunities.

Upon arrival in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, he quickly discovered that very little was expected of him in this new and exciting post.

He states, quite seriously that, “If I’d done absolutely bugger all except play golf, the Foreign Office would have had no difficulties with me at all”. The powers that be clearly picked the wrong man to while away his years on the golf course, because Craig Murray immediately wanted to get to know Uzbekistan and the apparent problems there.

He quickly discovered that the then government comprised of exactly the same people as the government of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, pre 1989. President Islam Karimov came to power in 1989, and he remains head of state today. Murray learnt that the major industry in Uzbekistan is cotton production, with almost all of the citizens helping out for three months of the year when the cotton is harvested. They are paid roughly $2 per month and have to work 12 hours a day. The numerous cotton farms have never been privatised, so therefore are state owned, with the product being sold for only about 3% of what it actually should be. In neighbouring Kazakhstan where the cotton industry is largely privatised, this is not a problem at all.

Murray spoke movingly about how schools and universities are shut during the cotton harvest; “All staff and students are forced to pick cotton for three months. It’s worse than Dickensian”. He went on to explain that a police stamp or exit visa is required to leave the cotton farm, so consequently many children born on the farms are unlikely to leave them. He added, “Kids as young as seven are out there picking cotton. 80 kilos a day of raw cotton each or you simply don’t get fed”. There is no pay at all to those under age, so child labour is basically insisted upon by the state.

Murray insists that much of the cotton in our clothes would be Uzbek cotton, but adds that it is not written on a clothes label where the cotton is from, consequently the consumer cannot boycott a particular brand if there is no way of telling the origin of the cotton. Apparently all cotton purchases must go through the Liverpool cotton exchange, so the former Ambassador hints that pressure could be exerted through this channel in the future.

Gold mining is briefly mentioned as the other main industry within Uzbekistan, although Murray stresses that President Karimov, “takes about 10% of gold sales revenue for himself, as his main source of personal income”. Karimov’s daughter, who works in government assisting the privatisation of state owned industries, has also managed to acquire a decent living from simply stealing large chunks of these companies. She now owns the Coca Cola bottling plant in Tashkent, as well as a half of a mobile telephone company. It appears from our far off perspective that corruption is rife within Uzbekistan. Indeed, in their annual Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International ranked Uzbekistan as the 114th most corrupt country in the world along with the likes of Honduras and Zimbabwe.

Due to Uzbekistan’s proximity to Afghanistan, the United States set up an air base there in 2001, as the war on terror commenced shortly after 9/11. Prior to the establishment of the air base, the US donated about $30 million each year to Uzbekistan in foreign aid. The annual donation now exceeds $500 million per year. Murray highlighted that this amount of aid is more than the US gives to the entire region of West Africa. Whether that amount is justified or excessive is a matter of opinion.

As word spread throughout the country of Craig Murray’s genuine concern for the plight of the Uzbeks, he learnt about several horrific cases, many of which he is putting into a book to be published later this year. One such case involved a 69-year-old man who had been boiled alive and had his finger nails removed as a punishment. His wife had taken several photographs of his dead body, which Murray had analysed. The wife was later given a sentence of 7 years hard labour for talking out. He later negotiated with the authorities and had her sentence reduced to a fine that the British Embassy paid.

Murray’s willingness to speak out about the horrific conditions in Uzbekistan did not impress his bosses in Whitehall. He immediately telegrammed the Foreign Office once he discovered that the CIA and MI5 were using intelligence which had been obtained under torture, which proved connections Uzbeks might have had with Osama Bin-Laden. Murray insisted that this was obtained under threats of death, but was told by his bosses that the intelligence was not illegal and indeed, that it was very valuable to the war on terror.

Murray’s Scottish determination never deserted him, and he continued to remind the Foreign Office about this intelligence, until they started to brief against him to the British press. Clearly by the summer of 2004 everybody in the Foreign Office from the Foreign Secretary down wanted Craig Murray out. When a telegram from Murray was ‘mysteriously’ leaked to the Financial Times in October 2004, Jack Straw had the perfect reason to suspend him from his duties.

Murray does not appear bitter about his predicament, as he sips his coffee in the Blend, immaculately fitted out in a three-piece suit. He is however hoping, perhaps forlornly, to oust Jack Straw from his parliamentary seat of Blackburn. Murray explains his candidacy further,

“It is really just to highlight that Jack Straw took the decision that we should use intelligence material which is obtained through torture. He took that decision.” When asked whom this message is being pitched at, Murray clarifies- “I’m pitching my message at Labour voters who are sick of this government’s foreign policy. These people may have been Labour all their lives, but they don’t like following George Bush”

Murray is highly unlikely to become the next Member of Parliament for Blackburn, but he is keen to raise awareness about the plight of the Uzbek people he tried to help whilst he was Ambassador. “Central Asia is a blank one for British people and there are fewer than 100 Uzbeks living in Britain.” Explaining the horrific situation within this far off country is certainly going to be a challenging task.