Ambassador of conscienceCover September 25, 2009
In 2002, Craig Murray, British ambassador to Uzbekistan, encountered something that he would describe as the real evil: the brutal campaign of torture and repression by the Islam Karimov regime. Later, in an interview with the Guardian, Murray described his encounters with victims of torture in Tashkent: “People come to me very often after being tortured. Normally this includes homosexual and heterosexual rape of close relatives in front of the victim; rape with objects such as broken bottles; asphyxiation; pulling out of fingernails; smashing of limbs with blunt objects; and use of boiling liquids including complete immersion of the body. This is not uncommon. Thousands of people a year suffer from this torture at the hands of the authorities.”
The ambassador uncovered that the Uzbek government was using its torture program to manufacture disinformation about al-Qaeda and Islamist threats in Central Asia and passing them on to MI6 and the CIA. He also discovered the existence of an extraordinary rendition program through which the CIA was flying terror suspects in to Uzbekistan to be tortured. As he started to report his findings to the FCO in London, he realised that his government was a partner in the torture and rendition arrangement. At one point, when Murray was asked by his superiors to shut up and ignore the Uzbek torture game, he had two choices before him: to continue playing the role of a diplomat in Her Majesty’s diplomatic service, or, to be the ambassador of his own conscience.
The conscientious decision Murray took cost him his job in 2004 and made him one of the first whistleblowers on torture and extraordinary rendition in the War on Terror. Since then, he is an outspoken critic of the War on Terror, as a human rights activist, writer and blogger.
Shafiur Rahman interviewed Craig Murray.
In recent months the British government has been facing embarrassing questions about the UK’s complicity in torture and renditions. There are calls for an independent enquiry into recent allegations of torture of British citizens in countries such as Pakistan and Morocco. Do you think things are finally coming to the surface, do you feel vindicated?
I think 99% of informed society are now quite certain that the government was receiving intelligence from torture. They [the government] have almost stopped denying, but, still claiming that does not amount to complicity. In what sense that does not amount to complicity is not clear.
It is very similar to the law on child pornography in this country – if you download child pornography, you are guilty even if you had nothing to do with creating the pornography, because, the law takes the view that by downloading it you are creating a market and causing the pornography to happen. I think the same is true for torture material: if you are accepting and using torture material, you are creating a market for that torture material and you are causing the torture to happen.
That the government is hanging onto this claim of not being complicit, while no longer really denying they got intelligence from torture, is an advance. I think people forget when I was having my big argument with the government in 2003-2004, I was saying: we are getting intelligence from torture, from terrible torture and we are complicit in it. I was saying: the Americans are flying people in to Uzbekistan, and the government said I was lying quite flatly.
At that stage, people did not fully realise that the government lies and lies very easily nowadays. When the government said it was me who was not telling the truth, a lot of people believed the government. My position in society, if you like, was really quite difficult. I was going about under this cloud of being stigmatised as a liar.
For me, personally, things are much better because I no longer meet anybody who does not believe me [laughs]. People do accept what I was saying was true and that I was one of the very first people to blow the whistle on torture and extraordinary rendition in the War on Terror.
The government refuses to accept complicity because it is a legal term with legal force in international and domestic law. They are concerned about the possible legal consequences.
My concern is that we do not end up with the Abu Ghraib situation. The lady Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who commanded Abu Ghraib, has told me – one to one – that she personally saw a memo signed by Donald Rumsfeld outlining those interrogation techniques. Yet, the only people who went to jail were privates and corporals.
I am scared that is what we are going to see in the UK, that a few very junior MI5 and MI6 people will go to prison for six months and the government will say, “It was out of control individuals at the very bottom.” And the people who are really guilty – Jack Straw, Tony Blair, David Blunkett – will get off completely free, [despite the fact] that the complicity came from the top not from the bottom.
You mentioned Tony Blair. I have been reading John Kampfner’s book – Blair’s Wars – where he says that Blair was always inconsistent in terms of human rights, torture and so on. But, after 9/11, he just took the US mantra and wore it. What are your thoughts on that, and, how did Blair approach things in Uzbekistan and Central Asia?
When Blair started using phrases like “the gloves are off and the rules have changed,” that was a pretty definite signal that we were going to start doing things which are illegal. I do not think that we had fully appreciated the extent to which Blair was motivated by his religious belief and saw this as a religious crusade for Christianity against Islam.
It is an interesting thing if you look at opinion polls in the US nowadays. They show that just over 50% – 52%-54% – of people in the US are in favour of the use of torture in the War on Terror. 30%-40% of people are consistently against it with the rest being don’t know. But, if we break down the poll sample – the churchgoers in the US are consistently 80%-90% in support of torture [laughs].
To a British person that is anachronistic, makes no sense at all, in that you would expect the opposite to be true. I think the affect of that kind of aggressive, evangelical, pro-Zionist, happy-clappy religion in the US is quite extreme on people’s opinion. I think Blair is very influenced by that and that has a large part of it.
In Central Asia in particular, Blair had no interest. He never went there, he never commented on any Central Asia policy that I ever saw. He viewed Central Asia as an American sphere of influence. When I went to Uzbekistan, I was told that my first and foremost task was to support the American ambassador. So, Central Asia was viewed by the UK and by Blair as a US sphere of influence where our role was simply to support the US.
Now, I understand there was a time when the human rights question was a big part of British-European-American foreign policy. How do you see the Central Asia policy emerging in recent years?
Yeah, throughout the 1990s, the UK and the US had foreign policies in which human rights was an important factor, genuinely. The argument in internal policy discussion of the human rights implication of a case was given more weight within Whitehall and the State Department. That, in a way, culminated in Robin Cook’s declaration of an ethical foreign policy. The important thing to remember is that within the establishments, bureaucracies and political classes there had always been opposition to the growth of the importance of human rights. People who felt a Machiavellian, purely self-interest driven foreign policy was the natural state of affairs.
The American policy on Central Asia throughout the 1990s – the Clinton administration – quite correctly saw the Central Asian states as simply a continuation of the leadership of Soviet elites. There were condemnatory statements by Madeleine Albright and James Rubin, for example – outspoken human rights statements condemning the Uzbek government, the Turkmen government.
Things changed radically when Bush came in. American policy was already very much focused on oil and gas. The Unocal project did not start with the Bush administration – it had been going on under Clinton. But it was always a Republican-driven thing, George Bush senior was on the board of Unocal and it got a new lease of life.
Between Bush coming to power and 9/11 you can not find any condemnatory statement about human rights and Uzbekistan. The change in American foreign policy came when Bush came, the Bush family had interests in trying to get at Central Asian oil and gas. That fundamental switch of policy was a switch from Democrat to Republican which had already happened before 9/11.
9/11 then gave an excuse for massive military support and security service support for the Karimov regime. The fundamental motive was always Central Asian oil and gas. It was nothing to do with genuine security fears about Islam and Central Asia. Those fears had to be manufactured, because, the militant Islamic threat to Uzbekistan and to other Central Asian states – with the possible exception of Tajikistan – is much more imagined than it is real. At the same time, there was supposed to be a continued human rights agenda. Even Bush never officially tore up the human rights agenda.
The way they got around that was by this extraordinary pretence: the US and EU ambassadors produced series of reports on how the human rights situation in Uzbekistan was getting better. I used to go to surreal meetings with other ambassadors where there were talks about how the economy was getting better, there were less political prisoners and censorship had ended. All of which was totally untrue, it was Mickey Mouse stuff, it was fantasy. But, because they knew that was the narrative, that was how they squared it, by pretending the situation was getting better.
After what happened in Andijan – possibly a thousand pro-democracy demonstrators massacred – it became impossible to pretend any longer that the human rights situation was getting better.
Where do you see Russia and China in the game?
[For] Putin, the number one priority in the world was to reestablish Russian influence over the old Soviet Union. It is worth remembering that the Americans – the Republicans – were cock-a-hoop about getting their big airbase in Tashkent. Because Tashkent was not nowhere, Tashkent was the fourth biggest city in the old Soviet Union.
I do not know what the fourth biggest city in the US is, but it would be like, the Russians getting an airbase in Detroit. So for the Americans that was a huge achievement, and, they were building a $120 million embassy in Tashkent which was going to house 400 diplomats. They were really planning to bring Uzbekistan into their sphere of influence, to have a neocolonial relationship with Uzbekistan in the heart of the old Soviet Union.
Of course, Putin and the new nationalism in Russia was furious about it. So, Putin set out to undermine it, and, Putin not being stupid realised that the way to do that was through Gazprom. Every Central Asian state now has gas supply contracts with Gazprom, which effectively give Gazprom a monopoly.
Kazakhstan is the only state which has been large enough and where the oil and gas industry was developed enough that it has managed to maintain a balanced policy between east and west. Because [president of Kazakhstan] Nazarbayev is no democrat but he is a very shrewd, clever operator.
In all the other states – including those that do not have much oil and gas – Gazprom has been used effectively as a tool to buy out the leaderships. In Uzbekistan’s case it was a payment of, I think, $82 million from Gazprom to Gulnora Karimova [daughter of the Uzbek president], direct. In return for which the Americans were kicked out of their airbase.
China is a growing economic power. China is the natural market for the oil and gas from Central Asia because it has a huge energy deficiency and a quickly growing economy. Certainly from Kazakhstan it will be getting oil and gas. China is not trying aggressively to increase its presence in Central Asia, in the way it is trying in Africa. In Africa, China is building sports stadiums, building dams – all kind of things, putting in, what for Africa is a lot of money.
Here in the West we do not think much about Central Asia at all. But, China and Russia are both colonial powers in Central Asia. The old Soviet Union was just a renaming of the old Russian empire and many of its practices continued the same. China is an empire, the Han Chinese are a small, centred part of the population.
Living in the UK, because of our own history – because we were an island and when we acquired an empire we had to do it by sending ships – we only think somewhere is an empire if you have sea between the bits of it. In fact you can have a contiguous land country that is still an empire where you have a definite mother country and then other bits which are satellites. They happen to have been able to be conquered on land without going overseas.
The Russian empire was and is an empire. What happened was that the great swathe of Islamic civilisation in Central Asia and Eastern Europe extending all the way to China, weakened historically. And, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was overrun by Russia and by China.
So you have all these Muslim people from Dagestan, Tatarstan, Chechnya through to those who have achieved independence because they were acknowledged as separate republics within the USSR: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan. Then, through to the Uyghurs and other Muslim populations in the west of the Chinese empire. These are all colonial peoples.
So you had imperial control over all these countries, then of course those which have escaped from formal imperial control. All of them are still under control of colonial elites. The people who were trained by the Soviets in the Soviet way: like Karimov – is very, very typical.
Karimov was brought up in a Soviet orphanage – as so many of the communist leaders were – completely indoctrinated and brought up to be a Soviet apparatchik and still is a Soviet apparatchik. He never knew anything else, he never will and he will die a Soviet apparatchik.
So, you have this whole swathe covering 3,000-4,000 contiguous land miles of indigenous Muslim populations which were conquered colonially by Russia or by China. To the South you have Muslim populations which were conquered by the British, but, which have achieved independence of a kind. The extraordinary thing is it does not really make much difference, those which have escaped have not really escaped.
It does mean that China and Russia have this tremendous joint interest in keeping the lid on those colonial peoples. Because what many people call Islamic resurgence I think in most cases is an anti-colonial movement.
Where do you see the European Union?
I think the EU position is fascinating, because, the EU position is very weak. It is the EU again trying to square the circle – just the way the Americans were five or six years ago – by pretending that the Karimov regime is reforming. Therefore, getting out of the dilemma of what you do about it by accepting Uzbek government assurances of change.
The reason for that is that the EU position is entirely influenced by France and Germany’s dependence on Gazprom for their energy supplies. Germany within ten years will get 60%-70% of its electricity from Russian gas, from Gazprom gas. Some of which will come from Central Asia.
France, even with its giant nuclear programme, is getting about a third of its electricity from Russian gas. So, I do not think you will see the EU in any sense trying to diminish or compete with Russian influence in Central Asia. The EU accepts Central Asia as part of the Russian sphere of influence because it can not anger Russia, because of the increasing dependence on energy.
I think it is a very bad thing because I have a very jaded view of Russia. I think the militant nationalism and authoritarianism of Putin is a very bad thing. At the same time, the EU does try to alter that position by putting itself into a position to access Central Asian gas directly. That is where the Nabucco pipeline projects had become important.
But, the Nabucco pipeline project is stymied by Azerbaijan in effect. Because a large part of the Russia-Georgia conflict was Russia’s desire to seal off the pipeline right through Abkhazia. Anyway, to get there it still has to go through Azerbaijan and that is completely impossible. Azerbaijan is absolutely under Russian control. The father of the president of Azerbaijan used to be Putin’s boss in the KGB and there, I think, Russia has just got too tight a grip.
But, the Georgia War was over the pipeline again. Almost all recent conflicts sadly come down to control of hydrocarbon supplies.
Very final question Craig, and, this is at a personal level. I am sure you have been asked this many times. You were trained as a diplomat: diplomats compromise, diplomats understand their situation. Diplomats do not do what you did. Can you again tell me why you did it?
I think, some things are just so awful that you can not go along with them.
…you had not come across it before?
Not of that kind and intensity. I had been in the Niger delta, seen what was done to the people there by Shell. I had done what I could to help mitigate some of those bad things. But, this was of a different order.
This was really like being in Hitler’s Berlin in the 1930s. I have actually seen, in the foreign office library, photos of British diplomats in 1938 in long white trousers – in the days when they used to play tennis in long white trousers – playing tennis with Goering and Goebbels and whatever, at German diplomatic functions. I do not know, it is just not for me.
It seems, some things are so extreme that there is such a thing as real evil. When you encounter it, then, you have to do whatever little bit is in your power to do. I should say that when I started, I did believe – perhaps naively – that the British government would back me, when they realised the full horror of what was happening in Uzbekistan.
I expected I would get more support from them than I did. I certainly did not think they would stab me in the back and try to set me up in the way they did. I felt like I could almost shame them into supporting me. I was wrong.
Could I just do what other diplomats did and stay within the confines of diplomatic life – the embassy, the Intercontinental hotel, coffee parties, cocktail parties and dinners – and pretend it all was not happening, and, just take the money? No, I could not.
What I find really scary to this day and I still do not understand and I have never come to terms with it, is I did not think I was unusual. I really did not. I felt that everyone would feel like the way I did about that kind of thing. But, of course it is not true, is it?
You do realise, then, that the people, the tens of thousands of people (we like to pretend it was a few people at the top, it was not), the hundreds of thousands of people that ran the concentration camp system in Germany were just normal people, absolutely ordinary people.
The vast majority of people, if they were told, “Your job this morning is to shovel these Jews into this concentration camp,” there are almost no stories of German soldiers who refused to do it and were shot instead. People do what they are told by governments in order to keep their jobs, to keep their families, to keep their lives or whatever. And the whole world is a much less moral place than I guess I thought it was and it is difficult to come to terms with that [laughs].
Shafiur Rahman is a documentary filmmaker.
In print: Independent World Report — Issue 1, September 2009.