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Uzbekistan: Britain's Former Envoy Speaks Out About Rights Abuses

Two years ago, Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan made headlines when he spoke out publicly about Tashkent's poor human rights record. Craig Murray had harsh words, too, for the United States, saying it was helping prop up a brutal regime. Murray was suspended from his post in October 2004 and has now taken severance pay -- moves the British Foreign Office has said are not connected with his outspoken views. He spoke to RFE/RL about his experiences -- and his future plans.

Prague, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Craig Murray may be one of Britain's least diplomatic diplomats in recent memory.

While ambassador to Tashkent, he spoke publicly about repression and the lack of democratic freedoms in Uzbekistan. Last year he accused the United States and United Kingdom of using intelligence gained from people tortured in Uzbekistan. And in a widely published speech in November, he criticized the United States for helping prop up what he called President Islam Karimov's "brutal" regime.

These were all highly unusual comments from a diplomat -- especially, he said, coming as they did in the months immediately after Uzbekistan became a U.S. ally in the war on terror.

"When I first arrived in Uzbekistan [in 2002] and called on other European Union ambassadors and said to them, 'Goodness, the human rights situation here is terrible, this is a really nasty dictatorship,' two of them said to me absolutely directly, 'Yes we know, but we don't mention that because [Uzbekistan is a] close ally of the U.S.' And there was an understanding among ambassadors in Tashkent that they just pretended not to notice what was going on," Murray told RFE/RL (click here for full interview).
"I think they're propping up one of the worst regimes in the world very actively and it's a complete disgrace." -- Murray

Cases of torture in Uzbek prisons have been widely documented by human rights organizations. United Nations' rapporteur Theo van Boven said three years ago that torture was "systematic" in the country.

Murray says he felt it was his duty, too, to expose what he called the Uzbek regime's "extreme and all-pervasive" brutality. And he has harsh criticism of what he calls the West's "blind support" for the Uzbek regime. How can U.S. support continue, he asks, after U.S. President George W. Bush in January vowed to promote democracy throughout the world?

"It has given a great deal of financial, military, moral support to a dreadful regime which would otherwise crumble under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency. I think they're propping up one of the worst regimes in the world very actively and it's a complete disgrace. It's particularly a disgrace when allied with the hypocrisy of [President] George Bush's election inauguration address [in January] when he said that the U.S. would be working to counter dictatorships and support democracy worldwide, whereas in Uzbekistan they're doing exactly the opposite of that," Murray said.

The United States, for its part, has tried to draw attention to Uzbekistan's human rights abuses. The U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights has strongly criticized the Karimov regime -- particularly for incidents of torture and prison abuse. Last year, the U.S. government even withheld some $10 million in aid because of Tashkent's human rights problems.

But Murray calls that a "token cut." He said the U.S. approach has brought no benefits and may even backfire if anti-Western sentiment grows. Instead, he said, the West should treat Uzbekistan as a pariah state.

"There is certainly no more freedom in Uzbekistan than there is in Belarus, and the regime in Tashkent is still more vicious and violent than the regime of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka. And Lukashenka, we're quite happy to ostracize and bring sanctions against, while we court Karimov. Uzbekistan is certainly in the 'Top 10' for dictatorial regimes in the world and we should treat it as such. We don't have any difficulty treating [Zimbabwe's President Robert] Mugabe and Lukashenka as pariahs, so why should we not treat Karimov in the same way?" Murray said.

Amid the controversy over his comments, Murray was recalled to London in 2003 and told he was facing charges of misconduct, including being drunk at work. Those charges have now been dropped, and he has secured a severance deal from the Foreign Office. He said he now plans to stand against Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Britain's parliamentary election, expected in May.

Murray said he wants to highlight what he calls the illegality of the Iraq war and the British government's failure to support human rights abroad. He said he is also writing a book about his experiences, which he hopes to publish by the summer.

Asked if he achieved anything by speaking out, he said it raised greater awareness of Uzbekistan's problems. He said he regrets the loss of his career, but added, "I don't feel I could have done anything else."

Also see RFE/RL's full interview with former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray.

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