By Mary Raftery in The Irish Times
He was accused of corruption, of taking bribes, being an alcoholic and sleeping around. Pretty hairy stuff, if you happen to be the UK foreign office’s youngest ambassador, a high flyer well on your way to a glittering career.
The story of Craig Murray, British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 until 2004, is a salutary tale for anyone thinking of doing the right thing, of defending people against murder and torture, of standing up and speaking out in the face of duplicity, hypocrisy and evil.
For this is what Murray did when he publicly condemned the Uzbek regime in 2003 for its systematic use of torture – “on an industrial scale”, as he has described it. He also implicitly criticised his own UK government and that of the United States, who accepted information on Islamic groups which they knew had been obtained under Uzbek torture.
Ambassadors in so-called friendly countries who blow the lid on grotesque abuses of human rights are rare birds. Only one precedent in recent decades springs to mind. Robert White was US ambassador to El Salvador in 1980, during that country’s state-sponsored slaughter of its own civilians. He lost his job for publicly condemning the murders, rapes and torture by a vicious right-wing regime, which was of course a staunch ally of the US. Craig Murray also lost his job. Never mind that the outrageous allegations against him were shown to be false; he was still forced out. He was not considered what is euphemistically known as a team player.
Uzbekistan is a member of the “Coalition of the Willing”, making it an enthusiastic supporter of the US/UK war on terror. It has allowed its territory to be used by coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, with whom it shares a border.
A former Soviet republic, it has been led since its independence in 1991 by Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party leader. There are no free elections and opposition parties are banned. It is widely accepted internationally, even by the UK foreign office, that the regime of this primarily Sunni Muslim country continues to use the threat of al-Qaeda-style terrorism as an excuse to ruthlessly suppress legitimate opposition to its policies.
The US state department describes Uzbekistan as the “strategic centre of central Asia”. It plays a pivotal role in the region, and the US “accordingly has developed a broad relationship covering political, human rights, military, nonproliferation, economic, trade, assistance, and related issues”. While there is a reference to the Uzbek regime’s routine use of torture, this clearly is no impediment to Uzbekistan’s membership of the coalitions which, according to the state department, “have dealt with both Afghanistan and Iraq”. Nor is it apparently any obstacle to America’s use of Uzbekistan for rendition purposes – it has been reported that several terrorist suspects have been deposited there by the US for interrogation. It was only when the Uzbek military opened fire last year on a group of defenceless protesters in the city of Andijan, killing over 600, that western powers were moved to murmur a protest. Craig Murray’s gravest sin was to go public about the fact that both the US and the UK governments were happily using information gained under torture from unfortunate Uzbeks identified – usually falsely – by the regime as terrorists. In Alan Torney’s enthralling documentary on RT’ radio last week, Murray described how he was told by the British foreign office that it was perfectly acceptable to use information gained as a result of torture so long as the UK did not actually torture people itself, or actively encourage others to do so.
Whether encouraged or not, the Uzbek regime uses rape, asphyxiation and electrocution as standard means of torture.
They also like to wield pliers to tear out finger and toenails and to immerse people in boiling liquid. There are reports of parents forced to witness the torture of their children so as to force information from them.
Murray makes the point that while waging a war in Iraq ostensibly to remove the tyrant Saddam Hussein and his appalling abuse of his own people, both the US and the UK are happily cohabiting with another regime in the area, namely Uzbekistan, whose persecution of its citizens was, and remains, just as savage.
The latest in the Craig Murray saga – and he continues to campaign against human rights abuses in Uzbekistan – is a remarkable assault on his work by the UK administration.
His riveting book, Murder in Samarkand, was published earlier this year, and was to contain official documents he obtained under the UK freedom of information legislation.
The British government responded by threatening legal action, on the basis that it owns the copyright to all such documents and refuses to allow them to be reproduced. Murray himself best sums up his experiences: “Have we come to this, that integrity in public life is now so rare that some consider me a hero just for exhibiting the most basic human decency?”