From The Sunday Times (18.09.05)
An interview with Craig Murray by John Sweeney, the producer of the forthcoming TV documentary.
Our sacked man in Tashkent tells John Sweeney he won’t give up his fight against Britain’s reliance on foreign intelligence obtained by torture
It’s early morning and Craig Murray -our former man in Uzbekistan -is making himself a cup of tea in a Blackburn semi during his doomed attempt to unseat the foreign secretary Jack Straw in May’s general election. His towel slips and he is exposed, our nudest ambassador.
“Oops!” says Murray, “losing my dignity. Not to mention my towel. Careful where you’re putting that camera. Children might be watching. Old ladies might faint with shock. Young ladies might faint with lust.”
They might, but that seems unlikely. Murray is 46, and has the body of a devil sick of sin. But he does have a 25-year-old Uzbeki girlfriend and a liking for a drink and talks openly about the joys of sex. So, you might say, no wonder Jack Straw’s men fired him.
Being a sexual pervert, a crook or a drunk has never been an impediment to a fine career in the Foreign Office: Donald Maclean once defecated on the carpet during a party thrown by an American diplomat and it was all hushed up. Nothing untoward happened to the traitor until he upped sticks and defected to Moscow.
Today, one senior figure at King Charles Street is said to be a serial shagger – “everybody knows about it” -having allegedly bedded at least two female Labour MPs, and nobody has cut down his ration of Ferrero Rochers.
Although Murray admits he is a bit of a lad, he insists that he is not a drunk or a crook or a perv, and remains deeply wounded that the Foreign Office accused him of selling visas for sex, of being off his head on booze and stealing Her Majesty’s dosh: “They hit me with 18 charges and I was cleared on all 18.” His crime, he says, was to commit the sin of sins, to criticise the way America was running its war on terror, in private and in public.
He challenged the credibility of Uzbeki intelligence given to the Americans and British, saying that it was based on torture. X and Y and Z were confessing to be major players in Al-Qaeda, said the raw material from the Uzbeks. Rubbish, said Murray, pointing out that in President Islam Karimov’s neo-Stalinist central Asian despotism, they boil people alive, and worse.
In a series of telegrams to Straw, copied to MI6, the lawyers and all the senior players, Murray argued that a) intelligence based on torture was useless because a torture victim will confess to anything, and b) that it was morally wrong -“we are selling our souls for dross”.
Straw saw the telegrams, says Murray, and came to the judgment that Her Majesty’s government should continue relying on the boil-in-the-bag intelligence.
This issue wasn’t academic for the ambassador. Within days of starting his job in Tashkent in 2002, photographs of a corpse landed on his desk. He sent them off to Britain, to be analysed by a Home Office pathologist.
The victim was a supporter of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a fundamentalist Islamic organisation but one that professes non-violence. Murray says: “The main finding was that this person had died from immersion in boiling liquid. And it was immersion, rather than splashing, because there was a clear tide-line around the upper torso and upper limbs and complete burns coverage underneath.
“Obviously the idea of someone being boiled to death is pretty horrific and that was one of the first eye-openers that I found in Uzbekistan.”
Most British ambassadors would have huffed and puffed in private, and said nothing in public. Imagine the fuss, then, when Murray spoke his mind in a speech in Tashkent in October 2002. Lines such as “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy”, “brutality is inherent” and just the mention of the secret police “boiling men to death” went down like a lead balloon. The uproar in central Asia was heard in Washington DC.
The Americans have a huge airbase there, just north of Afghanistan. What Murray said might have been true, but it was not “helpful” in the war on terror.
Murray is nothing if not smart. He had cleared his speech with the Foreign Office beforehand. Someone might have been very dim at King Charles Street, but they couldn’t get Murray on procedure.
As the war in Iraq drew near, and Washington’s rhetoric about Saddam’s “torture and rape rooms” grew louder, Murray sent telegrams bemoaning “double standards”.
“When it comes to the Karimov regime, systematic torture and rape appear to be treated as peccadillos, not to affect the relationship and to be downplayed in the international (forums) … 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.”
The irony here for Murray is that he says all he was doing was following new Labour’s ethical foreign policy. The problem was, perhaps, that the policy had been dropped.
A stout patriot, in every sense of the phrase, Murray’s contempt for what he calls the doublespeak that justified torture is based on a deep sense that Britishness should never have anything to do with electrodes on genitals. It is a remarkable passion for a diplomat and has caused him to lose his job, his lifestyle and, for a time, his sanity.
Murray said while stomping the streets of Blackburn: “I feel tremendously strongly about what this government has done in launching an illegal war, combined with the attacks on civil liberty at home, the portrayal of the Muslim community as being full of terrorists and the decision to obtain and use intelligence that was got under torture. This constitutes a real slide towards evil and people have a duty to try to stand up against it, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Murray’s sacrifice was real. He loved his job. “I do often wish I was back in Uzbekistan, partly because I liked the people so much but mostly because I felt I was doing valuable work.”
He also loved the lifestyle. “There was a very beautiful landscaped garden in Uzbekistan, a very wonderful swimming pool. It was very idyllic. I used to have people who hung up my clothes for me, and washed them and ironed them, and all that sort of stuff. Sadly, those days are gone.”
And going bonkers wasn’t fun. After the Foreign Office accused him of being a thieving, drunken sex maniac, he suffered a mental breakdown and was flown back to London and admitted to St Thomas’s hospital. “I was determined to hold onto my self-respect. I wasn’t going to admit to something that I hadn’t done. But it’s amazing how easy it is to break someone.
“I went into complete listlessness, apathy, I was crying, I couldn’t see any way out. I couldn’t tell anyone about it and I was actually brought back under medical supervision. For the first 10 days of that I was on suicide watch. That involved a large male nurse being with me, 24 hours a day, following me into the loo and that kind of thing. I tell you that if you’re not suicidal before, you get suicidal pretty quickly when you are being followed into the loo by a large male nurse.”
He got his marbles back, fought the Foreign Office, cleared his name and realised his career was over. He took early retirement and remains Jack Straw’s least favourite critic. Thus far, the ever-nimble foreign secretary has avoided every single attempt by Murray to debate the issues one-to-one.
A bit like the Terminator, Murray staggers on, relentlessly, accusing Straw of complicity in torture -and that is a breach of article 4 of the United Nations convention against torture. Straw’s line is that, “to the best of my knowledge”, no intelligence he receives is based on torture, to which Murray says: “He is lying.” The Foreign Office disagrees.
Murray’s heroic failure when he stood in Blackburn against Straw is, like most tragedies, blackly comical. I will never forget the sight of Murray standing on top of the Green Goddess, the ancient army fire engine he bought for the campaign, and proclaiming in his rich baritone to elderly Lancashire ladies who looked the spitting image of Ena Sharples: “People have their fingernails ripped out, have electrodes attached to their genitals, are suffocated, drowned in the torture chambers …”
He got fewer votes than the British National party. It was a miserable ending to a brave adventure as Straw’s supporters booed Murray with special vehemence. “The guy from the BNP turned to me and said, ‘They hate you more than me’.”
The day we finished editing our film was 7/7. We were in a sound dub in central London, a few streets away from the Tavistock Square bus bomb. The sound engineer quipped: “It’s a great film, John, but torturing Muslims is about to be Britain’s number one Olympic sport.”
It was a cruel joke, all the funnier because of the germ of truth in it. If torturing some fanatic with a beard in Uzbekistan could prevent another 50 people being blown to smithereens on the Piccadilly line, why not? Murray replies: “No.
Torturing innocents is wrong. But torturing the guilty is wrong, too. If we in Britain change our mind about that, then at least we should have the honesty to say so. Torture is wrong, full stop.”
At the forthcoming Labour party conference Straw will trot out his usual line: “The British government does not condone torture, full stop” -which is not quite the same thing, as he and Craig Murray know only too well.
John Sweeney’s The Ambassador’s Last Stand will be broadcast on BBC2 on Wednesday at 7pm