A sorry affair in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a remarkable country. The most populous of the former Soviet Union's central Asian republics, it contains the legendary silk route cities of Samarkand and Bukharu. Its capital Tashkent is a modern city, with wide boulevards, an underground system supplementing its bus, tram and trolley bus networks, and has a functioning railway system. In addition it has an opera house which puts on a range of performances, all at a ticket price equivalent to 75p. The population is overwhelming Muslim, but couples walk hand in hand in city streets and one hardly ever sees a woman wearing the veil.

All this suggests a country full of possibilities for the future, and so it could be if one turned a blind eye to the authoritarian regime and its human rights record. The former Communist party chief, Islam Karimov, became the elected President of the newly independent Uzbekistan after 1990 and, through a series of dubious referenda, tight control of the media, and the banning of key opposition parties, he has extended his mandate to the election scheduled for next year.

Karimov is a very shrewd operator capable of promoting the trappings of democracy, such as an election commission, an elected parliament - in a superb new "majlis" building - and an ombudsman service, but these institutions are themselves flawed. For instance, whilst based in the European Commission`s project office inside the parliament building, I would get to know the MP who was my opposite number in charge of the relevant parliamentary committee, only to discover on my next mission that he had been deposed by the President and replaced by a more compliant MP, without any outcry from the supposedly independent legislature. Also, though I worked on the reform of the electoral law, I never once met anyone from the electoral commission - even though it was based in the same building!

Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan and, following the 9th September 2001 attack on New York, Karimov realised that an agreement to provide the USA with air bases close to the border was likely to insulate him from Western criticism of his human rights abuses. And so it has proved, with hardly a murmur reaching the American and European media. That is, until the arrival in Tashkent in 2002 of Craig Murray, the new British Ambassador.

By one of those curious coincidences I already knew Craig Murray. In 1985 the Liberal party had one of its occasional pangs of conscience about always holding its party conference in an English seaside resort beginning with the letter 'B' and took its annual jamboree to Dundee. The lively chairman of the local Young Liberal branch was one Craig Murray. The next time I met him was over dinner in Tashkent in October 2002 when, as the British Ambassador, he was about to be hauled over the coals by the Uzbekistan foreign ministry following his forthright speech on the human rights situation in that country. At the time he was clearly concerned as to his future but he was determined to continue to speak out on human rights abuses. He did so and has now been removed from his post by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Robin Cook's initial espousal of an "ethical dimension" in foreign policy did not even survive during his tenure of office as Foreign Secretary but his successor, Jack Straw, has made a mockery of any such concept. One should not be so naïve as to think that the pressures and demands on political action required to cope with a dangerous and imperfect world are conducive to the every day practice of morality by those in charge of foreign policy, but the treatment of Her Majesty's Ambassador to Uzbekistan has been just about as cynical as could be imagined. He has been effectively stitched up behind the scenes.

His speech which attracted the initial attention, in October 2002, had been cleared in advance with the FCO in London, but faced with the delicate situation of a furious Uzbek regime and the need for the airbase to provide crucial air cover in Afghanistan, remedial action had to be taken. Clearly, it was impossible to deny publicly the facts in the speech so Craig Murray was recalled to London, ostensibly so that a series of allegations of sexual and professional misconduct against him by the Uzbek government could be investigated. None of these charges have never been upheld, but the suggestion was allowed to leak out that, under the pressures of the post and the personal allegations, the Ambassador was unwell and unable to return to Tashkent.

Eventually, that position could no longer be maintained and Mr Murray duly returned to his post. Inevitably, in the light of his by now increased reputation as a diligent advocate for truth in Uzbekistan, more evidence of false imprisonment, torture and murder was brought to his attention. He duly reported this to the FCO in London by the normal method of confidential telegrams. One such telegram, which suggested that Britain was "undermining its moral standing by falling for 'dross' provided by Uzbekistan" through bogus information obtained by torture, was leaked to the media, and he was then removed from his post forthwith.

It is a shabby story of underhand tactics to discredit and then to remove an individual who has done his job with courage and determination in difficult circumstances. There has been no suggestion that he has made improper public speeches and there has been no attempt to deny the accuracy of his reports. Britain's reputation as an upholder of human rights has been harmed by these events, leading to the inevitable suspicion that the British government has succumbed to pressure from the USA in order to justify the American airbase in Uzbekistan.

20 October 2004