An interview with Craig Murray published in February in The Courier
There are some things Craig Murray still feels guilty about even though they weren’t his fault. The biggest regret of the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan is having dinner with a professor of literature who disagreed with his Government’s use of torture.
”While we were eating, the Government kidnapped the man’s 17-year-old grandson and tortured him to death. They immersed his hand in boiling liquid until the flesh came off, smashed his knees and elbows then killed him with a blow to the head and dumped his body.
”That had a pretty profound effect on me. I knew it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t agreed to meet his grandfather.” This is just one of many grim tales Craig Murray collected in his two-year stint in Uzbekistan before his opposition to the US ally’s brutal methods brought his career to an end.
Norfolk-born Craig (47) studied history at Dundee University and was students’ association president for two years before starting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s diplomatic service in 1984.
He started working in Africa and still considers himself an African specialist. The British Government’s view towards the continent changed dramatically over the two decades of his career, he says. ”The ANC was regarded as a terrorist organisation and Margaret Thatcher branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. But then she was also against the reunification of Germany, and history just overtook her.
”It does sound strange, but the Tories were much more accepting of discussion and dissent than New Labour are. Under New Labour you aren’t allowed to disagree or express dissent. ”There were some good people in New Labour, though. I got on very well with Robin Cook. ”
After a stint in Nigeria, Craig worked in Cyprus and Poland before returning to Africa where he oversaw the 2000 election in Ghana, which was won by the opposition. ”I stood guard on the election building in case government soldiers came and tried to destroy the ballot papers. I was awake for 48 hours.
”I was the go-between between the government and opposition and I guess I must have done well because they said, we’re going to make you an ambassador, would you like to go to Uzbekistan? And I said yes-then got an atlas to find it!”
Within a few days of moving to the former Russian state, Craig began to feel a sense of disquiet. ”If you haven’t lived in a truly totalitarian state before it’s very hard to describe. They had all the control of the Soviet Union with several layers of brutality added.
”People told me it was like being back in the time of Stalin. The capital city, Tashkent, has 40,000 uniformed policemen and God knows how many plain clothes officers. People are encouraged to spy on their neighbours.”
Although the two countries have since fallen out, Uzbekistan was a staunch US ally at that time and seen as a vital part of the war on terror. The US base there was used to launch strikes into Afghanistan and the Americans wanted to make the base permanent.
The barely-tapped oil and gas reserves also had US energy companies drooling, in particular ill-fated energy giant Enron. Therefore, the abuses of President Islam Karimov’s dictatorship Government were tolerated and, as Craig was to find out, anyone who shouted too loudly about them would feel the full force of the British and US governments’ displeasure.
One of the harshest lessons in the realities of totalitarian politics occurred just two weeks into Craig’s deployment in Uzbekistan. ”There were two guys in Jaslyk Gulag, which was a notorious prison in the middle of the desert. No roads lead into it, you need a four-wheel-drive to get there.
”They were boiled to death and the body of one of them was delivered to his mother in a sealed casket. The mother was instructed to bury the body the next day and not to open the casket. They sent a guard to ensure this happened. ”But the guard fell asleep during the night and she sneaked past him and got the body out on the kitchen table. She took a lot of very detailed pictures.”
The pictures taken by this brave woman made their way to Craig’s hands and he sent them to the pathology lab at Glasgow University. ”Their report showed the guy’s fingernails had been ripped out and he was beaten about the face.
”He died from immersion in boiling liquid. They said you could tell because of the tide mark on his chest.”
Matters escalated after another horrific act by Karimov’s regime, this time closer to home.
”There was a lady who lived opposite me. Our homes are separated by a narrow lane. She was beaten up in the lane itself by Government militia. They broke her legs then they poured paint in her mouth-all because they said she was a dissident. She was a woman in her 50s, for God’s sake! And a friend of mine.”
This tale, horrible as it might seem to us, is a standard event in Uzbekistan. ”It’s estimated the Government has at least 10,000 political and religious prisoners. They’re torturing people on the most massive scale and in the most brutal ways you can possibly imagine.
”People were being killed or put in the Gulag for years. It was all very overt.”
Craig began to feel he couldn’t stand by and accept this sort of barbarity as a commonplace event. He gave a speech calling on Uzbekistan to end its use of torture. ”The Foreign Office were a bit sniffy about it, but the Americans were really hacked off. The very next day they started telling journalists I was an alcoholic.”
So began a very difficult time for Craig, when huge pressure was brought to bear on him. Ironically, Craig found he had quite a lot of influence in Uzbekistan because few people ever stood up against the Government.
Back at home it was a different story, though. The Foreign Office ordered him back to London and hauled him over the coals. ”I was told that they’d made a general decision that because we’re in a war on terror we’re now going to start accepting information that’s obtained by torture. ”I was told I was being unpatriotic.”
According to Craig, the Foreign Office levelled a series of 18 allegations against him, including charges that he was an alcoholic who gave out visas in return for sex. They told Craig to resign as ambassador of Uzbekistan and offered to send him to Copenhagen instead. The alternative was to have these allegations investigated further.
”I told them to sod off. That threw them, but they were all snooty Oxbridge types and I’d gone to Dundee. I wasn’t about to throw in the towel.” During this time, Craig had a nervous breakdown. It took him three months to recover from it.
The threatened investigation went ahead and Craig was exonerated on all 18 allegations. ”For 16 of them, there was no evidence at all. The other two went to a hearing at which I was found not guilty. ”So they told me I could keep my job, but I was banned from entering my own embassy.”
Craig continued in his job as best he could and continued to speak out against the use of torture, but his position was becoming increasingly untenable. After a memo alleging the British Government accepted torture evidence was leaked to the Press, his career was effectively over.
He took early retirement in February 2005 and has devoted the last year to campaigning against the war in Iraq, extraordinary rendition and the UK’s alleged use of torture evidence.
He’s also written a book, Murder in Samarkand (the city where the dissident’s grandson was killed). The book is due out in June, although the Government has tried to ban it and are threatening to sue. Craig and Edinburgh-based Mainstream Publishing have decided to publish and be damned, however.
”We’ve decided they can take us to court if they want to. I’m very worried and jaded about the direction our Government is taking. I think we’re losing sight of the things that make us civilised.”