22 February 2004

The Undiplomatic Ambassador

By Gwynne Dyer

“The intense repression here combined with the inequality of wealth and absence of reform will create the Islamic fundamentalism that the regime is trying to quash,” said the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, so of course they recalled him to London. Ally Number One, the United States of America, is making Uzbekistan a major logistical base for its military operations in Central Asia, and would be grateful if Britain’s ambassador stopped bad-mouthing America’s new ally in the crusade for democracy, Uzbekistani dictator Islam Karimov.

It looked like curtains for Murray: trumped-up allegations of drunkenness and womanising, our American friends deeply distressed at his comments about Karimov, best find him something else to do out of the limelight until all this blows over. But then something surprising happened.

It’s not clear quite what it was — either Murray’s professional colleagues at the British Foreign Office quietly rebelled against the plan to sacrifice one of their own on the altar of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States, or Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government decided that this was a genuflection too far — but suddenly, last month, Craig Murray was back in Tashkent. What’s more, his mouth has not been sealed shut.

Murray was hardly back in the country when Fatima Mukhadirova, the mother of a young Uzbek man who had been tortured and murdered by the authorities for his alleged links with Islamic extremism, was herself sentenced to six years in a maximum security prison for publicising information about her son’s torture (or attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order,” as the court put it). Murray could not contain himself: “It is another example of a gross breach of human rights in Uzbekistan,” he said.

There is absolutely no evidence that Mrs Mukhadirova’s son, Muzafar Avazov, was anything but a devout Muslim with no political links: in Islam Karimov’s brutal and arbitrary dictatorship, just being seen in a mosque can draw suspicion to you. Avazov was arrested, tortured and killed in the notorious Jaslik jail, as thousands of others have been in Uzbekistan on equally flimsy charges. The only different thing about the case is that when his mother got his body back, she took pictures of it and publicised them. When Murray saw them in 2002, he protested loudly.

When Avazov’s mother was sent to jail last week for making the horrors public, he protested again, telling the BBC World Service that the six-year sentence was “simply appalling”. Later he told the ‘Guardian’ newspaper: “She took photographs of her son’s corpse which she gave to the British embassy. The Foreign Office sent them to the University of Glasgow pathology department. Their forensic report said the body had clearly been immersed (in boiling water) because of the tide marks around the upper torso.” His teeth had also been smashed and his fingernails pulled out, but the Uzbek prison authorities continue to insist that he died because inmates spilled hot tea on him.

An everyday story of Central Asian folk, ending with the sentencing of a 63-year-old woman to six years at hard labour. (“The chances of her surviving that are very limited,” Murray commented.) This sort of stuff goes on all the time in most of America’s new allies in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, and the US government steadfastly looks the other way because now the rulers of the ‘Stans’ have become valuable allies in the ‘war against terror’, whatever that means these days. Indeed, US foreign aid to Uzbekistan, most of which goes straight to Karimov, tripled last year.

Islam Karimov, like most of the other Central Asian ‘presidents’, is simply the former Communist Party chief of the local republic in a new costume. He ruthlessly persecuted Muslims when he ran Uzbekistan for the Communists, and since Islam is the likeliest rallying point for an opposition movement that could challenge his power, he still persecutes the religion ruthlessly today. The only new wrinkle is that he can now paint his domestic opponents, and devout Muslims in general, as ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’, and get a cynical or ignorant American ally to ignore the horrors that he visits on them.

 Cynicism is a likelier explanation than ignorance, because when Murray started pointing out how horrible the Karimov regime was, Washington’s response was to try to silence him. His response last year was to talk even louder, and this year he’s doing it again. “We take the view that because of the lack of reform in the country it is not really possible to put in place a major aid programme which will benefit the people of Uzbekistan,” he said a week ago. “Obviously, we would prefer it if other major states took the same view.” Like the United States, for example.

Craig Murray is absolutely right that backing people like Karimov will only generate support for Islamic extremism in the long run, but that is not his point. He’s actually saying that backing people like Karimov is simply wrong, because they are wicked dictators who abuse their own people (like that chap down in Iraq, you know, Saddam something or other….) And he could just be a sign that the Bush administration’s major foreign ally in its incursions into the Muslim world is starting to have second thoughts about the people it has chosen for allies.

But probably that is too much to read into this single case. At any rate, it is refreshing to see a diplomat who does not believe that he was hired to lie for his country.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Islam…example”)