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Uzbekistan: Britain's Ambassador At Center Of Controversy Over Human Rights

Britain's ambassador to Tashkent is at the center of a controversy over comments he is reported to have made about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and Britain's alleged use of intelligence information obtained through torture. The comments are said to have been contained in a classified memorandum written in July by Ambassador Craig Murray. The memorandum was leaked this week to the British press. According to media reports, Murray is now being prevented by Britain's Foreign Office from returning to his post pending a review of his security clearance. But the British government said today Murray is still its ambassador. Human rights groups, meanwhile, are praising Murray's courage while also questioning how such a confidential memo could have been made public. As RFE/RL's Grant Podelco and Gulnoza Saidazimova report, this is not the first time Murray has spoken out forcefully on the issue.

Prague, 12 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The story first appeared in yesterday's edition of the respected British daily "Financial Times."

The newspaper said it had seen a confidential report written by Britain's ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray, in which he protests over London's use of intelligence information allegedly obtained in Uzbekistan under torture. The information is purportedly supplied to the United States and passed by the Central Intelligence Agency to the United Kingdom.

In the memo to the Foreign Office, Murray is quoted as saying, "tortured dupes are forced to sign confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the U.S. and U.K. to believe -- that they and we are fighting the same war against terror." He calls the practice "morally, legally, and practically wrong" and says it should stop.

British newspapers ("The Daily Telegraph," "The Guardian") reported today that the government is considering withdrawing Murray's security clearance and may prevent him from returning to Uzbekistan. He is currently in Britain on leave.

Aaron Rhodes, director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, spoke about the Murray case today with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "I think that many in the human rights community would applaud what the ambassador did and would be grateful for his candor," Rhodes said. "He was courageous enough to speak the truth about some situations in Uzbekistan, and these are not easy to swallow, they're not easy to accept. But if we're serious about human rights and we're serious about international obligations, it's our duty to speak candidly about them."

But while Rhodes admires Murray's courage and candor, he also questions how such a memo could have been leaked to the press. "I do think this raises another question, and that is discretion," he said. "The man was probably doing the right thing by expressing concern about that. But my question would be, how did that memo come to the attention of the news media?"

Rhodes said public exposure of such a sensitive diplomatic issue could set back efforts that may have been taking place behind the scenes aimed at addressing the problems raised by Murray.

In an interview today with RFE/RL, a spokesman in the British Foreign Office's press office, Alan Reuter, would not confirm the existence of Murray's latest memorandum. But he said the ambassador has made his views known on the topic of human rights in Uzbekistan. Reuter said Murray is remaining in Britain at the moment for medical treatment but that he is still Britain's ambassador to Tashkent.

Murray's undiplomatic language has gotten him in trouble before. He made blunt comments about Uzbekistan's poor human rights record in 2002 and 2003 that upset the British government -- as well as Uzbek President Islam Karimov, no doubt.

Murray's supporters say a number of disciplinary measures launched against him last year were in retaliation for his outspokenness. The charges against him were later dropped, and he returned to his post. Murray -- who has been the ambassador to Tashkent since August 2002 -- has not commented on the current controversy.

Uzbekistan is home to a key U.S. air base used in antiterror operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Critics accuse the West of tolerating Uzbekistan's poor human rights record in exchange for cooperation in the war against terrorism.

But Rhodes of the Helsinki Federation noted that -- if Murray's concerns are correct -- any information obtained through torture is inherently suspect. "I don't know if [the Uzbeks] do this, but I do know that such a policy -- in addition to violating certain moral precepts by encouraging the practice of torture -- [is] not an efficient policy because information that's obtained under torture is notoriously incorrect," he said.

The U.S. State Department announced in August that Uzbekistan had failed to meet reform and human rights commitments under the 2002 strategic Partnership Agreement signed by the two countries. That froze up to $18 million in economic aid.

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