Her Majesty’s Man in Tashkent

From the Washington Post

The courtroom provided a telling introduction. I had recently arrived as British ambassador in Uzbekistan’s old Silk Road capital of Tashkent, where I was watching the trial of a 22-year-old dissident named Iskander Khuderbegainov. The gaunt young man was accused with five other Muslims of several crimes, including membership in a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda. The six sat huddled in a cage guarded by 14 Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers. The judge made a show of not listening to the defense, haranguing the men with anti-Islamic jokes. It looked like a replay of footage I’d seen of Nazi show trials.

The next day, an envelope landed on my desk; inside were photos of the corpse of a man who had been imprisoned in Uzbekistan’s gulags. I learned that his name was Muzafar Avazov. His face was bruised, his torso and limbs livid purple. We sent the photos to the University of Glasgow. Two weeks later, a pathology report arrived. It said that the man’s fingernails had been pulled out, that he had been beaten and that the line around his torso showed he had been immersed in hot liquid. He had been boiled alive.

That was my welcome to Uzbekistan, a U.S. and British ally in the war on terror. Trying to tell the truth about the country cost me my job. Continuing to tell the truth about it dragged me into the Kafkaesque world of official censorship and gave me a taste of the kind of character assassination of which I once thought only a government like Uzbekistan’s was capable.

When I arrived in Tashkent, in the summer of 2002, I was a 43-year-old career diplomat with two decades of varied experience, which included analyzing Iraqi efforts at weapons procurement and negotiating a peace treaty with Liberian President Charles Taylor. But nothing had prepared me for Uzbekistan, a country immediately north of Afghanistan in the heart of hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia. President Islam Karimov had reigned here as the Soviet satrap since 1989; after independence two years later, he had managed to make poverty and repression even worse than in Soviet times.

In Karimov’s Uzbekistan, no dissent is allowed. Media are state-controlled, and opposition parties are banned from elections. Millions of people, including children, toil on vast state-owned cotton farms, receiving some $2 a month for working 70-hour weeks. Their labor has made Uzbekistan the world’s second-largest cotton exporter. More than 10,000 dissidents are held in Soviet-style gulags. Many are pro-democracy advocates, but anyone showing religious enthusiasm is also swept up. Most are Muslims, but Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses are routinely persecuted, too.

I saw this happening in a country regarded as a strategic friend by the United States, which was looking for well-placed allies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Karimov had delivered for President Bush, allowing the United States to take over a major former Soviet airbase at Karshi-Khanabad to help wage war in neighboring Afghanistan; the several thousand U.S. forces stationed there were the first Americans permitted to serve in former Soviet territory. As a reward, Karimov had been Bush’s guest for tea in the White House in March 2002.

It was clear by the time I arrived in Tashkent a few months later that the United States was handsomely rewarding Karimov’s cooperation. Hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid were flowing to the country — after the U.S. government, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, repeatedly certified that the Uzbek government was making progress on human rights and democracy. According to a press release distributed to local media by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent in December 2002, the Karimov regime received more than $500 million in U.S. aid that year alone. That included $120 million for the Uzbek armed forces and more than $80 million for the re-branded Uzbek security services, successor to the KGB.

In other words, when the prisoner was boiled to death that summer, U.S. taxpayers had helped heat the water.

In mid-October, I made a speech at Freedom House in Uzbekistan, in which I made plain what I had learned in my brief time there. “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy,” I asserted, contradicting the U.S. ambassador, John Herbst, who had spoken before me. I went on to detail the political prisoners, prevalence of torture and lack of basic freedoms. I spoke out despite a written rebuke I had received from my superiors in London, chastising me for being “over-focused on human rights.” Apparently, my job was to stand beside my U.S. colleague and support our Uzbek ally.

Danish journalist Michael Andersen later wrote of conversations he had had with U.S. diplomats in Uzbekistan the day after my remarks. “Murray is a finished man here,” one told him.

The Uzbek people seemed shocked that a senior official from the West would take up their cause. People beat a path to my door: victims of torture, their families, relatives of the disappeared, people with more photographic evidence, or letters smuggled out of the gulags. And I began to build up a picture of torture used to subjugate an entire population.

I learned that there was a pattern to the confessions people were signing — a pattern reminiscent of the testimony I had heard from an old Muslim man at the trial I attended when I first arrived in the country. He had signed a statement, the man said, asserting that two of the defendants — his nephews — were members of al-Qaeda and had met Osama bin Laden. Then, suddenly, he drew himself up: “It is not true,” he said. “They tortured my children in front of me until I signed this. We are small farmers from Andijan. What do we know of Osama bin Laden?” Few others were able to retract their forced confessions.

A would-be Islamic insurgency had indeed emerged in the country — the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had supported the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. However, the IMU had never become a major political force in Uzbekistan, and government efforts to link the insurgency to bombing attacks in Tashkent in 1999 had met with skepticism from many Western analysts.

At the same time that I was receiving word from Uzbek citizens about the gruesome affronts to their humanity, I was also getting CIA intelligence on Uzbekistan, under the U.S.-U.K. intelligence-sharing agreement. This information — fed to the CIA by Karimov’s security services — revealed the same pattern of information as those forced confessions.

And it was a pattern that was false, often demonstrably so. One piece of CIA intelligence named a Muslim terrorism suspect with alleged links to al-Qaeda, except I happened to know that the person in question was a Jehovah’s Witness, not a Sunni Muslim extremist. Another gave a specific location for a terrorist training camp in the hills above Samarkand, a spot I knew was empty.

The CIA was apparently well aware that it was getting material drawn from torture. At my request, my deputy confirmed this with the U.S. Embassy. She reported back to me that she had been told that the United States did not see a problem “in the context of the war on terror.” (I immediately reported this back to Britain in a top-secret telegram.) And both the CIA and the British intelligence service, MI6, were accepting and using this intelligence in their assessments, despite its highly questionable validity.

In November 2002 and again in January 2003, I made formal, written complaints to London, arguing that it was morally, legally and practically wrong to obtain intelligence under torture. The law was embodied in the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and in practical terms, torture pollutes intelligence. I was summoned back in early March 2003 for a meeting with Matthew Kydd, head of liaison with the British security services, and Michael Wood, legal adviser to the Foreign Office. Kydd informed me that the intelligence from Uzbekistan was “operationally useful.” Wood later wrote that I was incorrect to believe it was an offense to “receive or possess information [obtained] under torture.”

To me, the meaning of all this was simple: U.S. officials were justifying their support for Karimov with the argument that he was a bastion against Islamic militancy. That argument enabled Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to come to Tashkent in February 2004 and say: “Uzbekistan is a key member of the coalition’s global war on terror. And I brought the president the good wishes of President Bush.” Karimov’s record as a dictator, persecuting democratic opposition, simply does not fit the narrative; it was not a story my government intended to let me tell.

During this period, the key challenge facing then- Secretary of State Colin Powell was the need to keep certifying Uzbekistan’s human rights record to Congress. By spring 2004, Congress was waking up to a human rights problem, and in July of that year, the Bush administration announced that it would cut $18 million in military and economic aid to Uzbekistan.

However, just before certification was due, the Uzbek government said that al-Qaeda suicide bombers had attacked Tashkent. I visited each of the alleged bomb sites within hours and saw virtually no damage. The evidence on the ground did not fit the official explanation. I knew al-Qaeda was not behind whatever had occurred: The British embassy had received National Security Agency intercepts of senior al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and the Middle East, phoning each other to find out what was going on in Tashkent. Nevertheless, Powell’s subsequent claim that Tashkent was under attack by Islamic extremists helped smooth the path for continuing U.S. aid.

In the meantime, my superiors had new complaints against me. I had gone from “over-focused on human rights” to “unpatriotic,” according to my supervisor when he came to meet with me in March 2003. By August of that year, I was recalled from holiday in Canada to London, where I faced 18 reputation-wrecking allegations: I was an alcoholic; I was issuing visas in exchange for sex; I was taking bribes.

I was stunned by the speed of it all, even more when I was told by a junior staff member that under no circumstances could I tell anyone about these allegations. I could not call witnesses; I was banned from my embassy; and I would be told later of the results of the investigation.

I should be quite plain: I did not lead a conventional social life; I had a string of mistresses throughout my career; and I also like a drink, as a good Scot should. But none of the allegations was true, and after a four-month investigation I was cleared of all of them due to lack of evidence. My taste for whisky and women wasn’t the problem; it was clear to me that I had no place in Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s endless War on Terror. I found the government’s hostility almost intolerable, and was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown. I was forced to retire in February 2005.

Just a few months later, in May 2005, Karimov’s troops fired into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators in the city of Andijan. Between 400 and 1,000 people died that spring day in what has become known as the Andijan massacre. The initial U.S. reaction was rather low-key. But when Karimov soon gave notice to the U.S. base, the massacre became a pretext for the Bush administration to announce its departure.

When I tried to tell my story — Uzbekistan’s story — in a book, I was challenged by my government, which sought to suppress the information. The British government has an illustrious history of censoring books by former civil servants, at times even trying to ban them. In the effort to prevent a ban, I succumbed to censorship of particular passages. Even so, the government refused to clear the book for publication, telling Parliament that it would consider suing me.

I also wanted to publish a large number of documents to corroborate my story — including my official dispatches from Tashkent and the government’s demands that I change the text — but when the government threatened legal action, I removed the documents from my book. I have continued to receive threatening letters; when Foreign Office lawyers argued that the government still retains copyright over all documents produced by the government (even if obtained through Freedom of Information laws), I had to remove them from my Web site.

These days I write, lecture and broadcast from London, where I live with my Uzbek girlfriend. The British government could no doubt prosecute me under our draconian Official Secrets Act, but I am confident they are too scared to have the facts of the case put before a jury. My book was finally published here this summer in its censored form. And the documents are still accessible on scores of Web sites with a little creative online searching. They support a story I have found as hard to tell in retirement as I found it hard to combat in office.