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Murder in Samarkand

In 2002, while political attention was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, a troubled British diplomat was exposing the UK's casual attitude to human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Marcus Williams talks to Craig Murray about trying to tell the truth about torture and being branded mad by the Foreign Office

December 1, 2006
8 min read

For a man so concerned with the unconcealed, Jack Straw will go to surprising lengths to keep some things hidden. Ask Craig Murray, Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan. When he reported the routine torture practised in that country under the tyrannical Karimov regime – including boiling prisoners of conscience to death – he was met with a conspiracy of silence that took its unconscionable authority from the then foreign secretary himself.

‘People think I was very naive in a way, because when I started reporting back to London saying that we’re getting intelligence from torture, we shouldn’t be doing it – it’s immoral and illegal – I actually thought London would back me,’ says Murray. ‘I thought, this is happening in Tashkent, London doesn’t know. If they knew we were getting intelligence from torture they would want to stop it; it’s only a matter of bringing it to ministerial attention.’

Unfortunately, he was soon freed of that illusion, and his new book Murder in Samarkand is the honest, courageous and frequently brutal account of his fight to expose the truth of the British government’s complicity with one of the most vicious regimes in the world. A regime, however, that was usefully acquiescent with the more dubious machinations of the so-called ‘war on terror’, including extraordinary rendition.

Murray was ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004. These were two short years in which he was pushed from being an enthusiastic, well-respected and successful career diplomat to the brink of physical and mental breakdown by the routine barbarity of the Karimov regime and the no less relentless persecution of the Foreign Office. The reaction of some of his colleagues to his revelations, often one of outright hostility, has also left him with doubts about the institution of government that he once loyally served.

‘I suddenly discovered that it didn’t stand for all kinds of things I thought it stood for, and I discovered how fragile it is and how easily it can go, just as Germany lost it in the 1930s’ he says. ‘I discovered how very easily civil servants will go along with terrible, terrible things and do all sorts of utterly reprehensible stuff on this “I’m only doing my job” basis.’

The ‘terrible things’ he’s talking about were first outlined in the speech he made at the opening of Freedom House’s office in Uzbekistan in October 2002 – a speech unprecedented in its direct criticism of the regime. He outlined the case of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, imprisoned by Karimov’s kangaroo court system and tortured to death by boiling water for their religious beliefs.

This method of torture was to come closer to home when the grandson of Professor Mirsaidov, a Tajik academic and dissident sympathiser, was killed following a meeting the professor had with Murray and Simon Butt, head of the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was a warning to the UK embassy not to fraternise with dissidents. Photographs taken before the young man was hurriedly buried showed that his elbows and knees had been smashed, the back of his head caved in and his right hand completely boiled.

Incredibly, on his return to the UK, Butt wrote to Sir Michael Jay, the FCO permanent under-secretary and head of the diplomatic service, ignoring the horrible death of Mirsaidov’s son and instead highlighting gossip regarding Murray being seen in a jazz club with a woman (a platonic after-work drink with his secretary). This was only the start of a smear campaign in which no fewer than 18 separate allegations – all of which were shown ultimately to be unfounded – were made against him in an attempt to force him out of his job.

Faced with this, Murray was forced to consider breaking diplomatic protocol and going public. He remained confident that once the wider British community knew about what was going on pressure would be put on the Government to act.

‘I thought, well, if this gets into the media and the British people know we are getting intelligence from torture they will be revolted and shocked, and there will be a widespread public reaction. But that’s not turned out to be the case either,’ he says. ‘If you ask them the question “Should we get intelligence from torture?” – and there have been opinion polls – a worryingly high percentage think it’s okay … so my faith in the British public has been shaken as well.’

That may not be the case, of course, if the British public has more of the facts at its disposal, and this is what Murder in Samarkand tries to do. But Murray has faced some very heavy and very frustrating censorship. One of his biggest problems has been that the government retains copyright over any FCO document produced in evidence. Murray’s former position as a diplomat means that he is unable legally to publish information without government consent, regardless of whether he obtained it legitimately.

Murray believes that the close collaboration between the UK and US intelligence services – and the resulting pressure from the US on the UK not to step out of line – is one of the reasons for the toleration of torture in Uzbekistan. This is underpinned by the widespread media silence on the issue, which he believes is a deliberate policy. One of the things that perplexes him is why more people don’t know about the intelligence sharing agreement between the UK and the US, which allows the UK to share the profits of torture and which uses extraordinary rendition to countries like Uzbekistan to get it.

‘The existence of the UK to US intelligence sharing agreement is top secret, but in terms of former members of the intelligence service, and members of the military and MOD that know about it, there must be at least 20-30,000 people alive in this country who have worked with [it] and probably three times as many alive in the US. There is something about it remaining a secret, however: it can only be by the agreement of the media not to publish it,’ he says.

Murray believes that the agreement has to be reviewed or legally challenged. ‘Personally, I don’t think there is any need for it whatsoever,’ he says. ‘The Germans don’t have intelligence sharing with the US and nor do the French. That’s no fundamental threat to the existence of those nations and it wouldn’t be a fundamental threat to our nation if we didn’t either. But do not underestimate the importance that governments place on the intelligence sharing agreement in terms of our Atlanticist foreign policy: [it’s] regarded by government to be as important as the Trident missile agreement. Those are the two things that absolutely tie us strategically to the US. It’s amazing how few people know about it.’

Murray sees the approach to intelligence gathering and torture as evidence that we are losing our basic moral bearings and his book as an attempt to arrest a dangerous slide away from real democracy. ‘I think the book is an attempt to be part of that fight and open people’s eyes to see what is happening … It’s deliberately written in as accessible a way as possible,’ he says.

It’s certainly accessible and its lack of conformity in terms of style, like its author, is what makes it effective. Murray goes on: ‘It’s deliberately meant to make people realise the extent to which their values are at risk.’

Despite his own experience, Murray is still optimistic about the ability of liberal values to reassert themselves: ‘I honestly believe that we will recover them, I really do. I think western liberalism is a very strong beast. I think we will look back on this period like people look back on McCarthyism and think, “Bloody hell!”

‘In 20 years time people will look back and see that we had a single week in which the national newspapers ran anti-Muslim headlines everyday … and all kinds of [stories] which, if they hadn’t [included] a Muslim, would never have made the paper at all. People will look back in shame and disgust actually, and I think [they] will look back with shame and disgust at John Reid – which provides great comfort to those of us who look at John Reid in shame and disgust now!’

Murder in Samarkand continues Murray’s fight for ‘the components of real change’ needed to bring democracy to Uzbekistan – the political, cultural and, importantly, economic changes that will ensure an equitable democracy for a people currently living under tyranny. There may be more massacres ahead like that at Andijan in May 2005, which reportedly left hundreds of unarmed civilians dead. But with the necessary support and resources the opposition supporting those changes can gain the strength needed to challenge the Karimov regime.

For this to happen, Murray stresses the urgency for pressure to be put on the UK government to end its connivance with the US’s clandestine use of torture. As Murray says, ‘The thing with tyranny is that, if you don’t try to fight it when it starts, it very quickly gets too strong for you.’Murder in Samarkand is published by Mainstream Publishing in hardback. It will also be released in paperback in February 2007 at £7.99

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