Banned in Britain
Her Majesty's Man in Tashkent
The courtroom provided a telling introduction. I had recently arrived as British ambassador in Uzbekistan's old Silk Road capital of Tashkent, where I was watching the trial of a 22-year-old dissident named Iskander Khuderbegainov. The gaunt young man was accused with five other Muslims of several crimes, including membership in a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda. The six sat huddled in a cage guarded by 14 Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers. The judge made a show of not listening to the defense, haranguing the men with anti-Islamic jokes. It looked like a replay of footage I'd seen of Nazi show trials.
The next day, an envelope landed on my desk; inside were photos of the corpse of a man who had been imprisoned in Uzbekistan's gulags. I learned that his name was Muzafar Avazov. His face was bruised, his torso and limbs livid purple. We sent the photos to the University of Glasgow. Two weeks later, a pathology report arrived. It said that the man's fingernails had been pulled out, that he had been beaten and that the line around his torso showed he had been immersed in hot liquid. He had been boiled alive.
That was my welcome to Uzbekistan, a U.S. and British ally in the war on terror. Trying to tell the truth about the country cost me my job. Continuing to tell the truth about it dragged me into the Kafkaesque world of official censorship and gave me a taste of the kind of character assassination of which I once thought only a government like Uzbekistan's was capable.
When I arrived in Tashkent, in the summer of 2002, I was a 43-year-old career diplomat with two decades of varied experience, which included analyzing Iraqi efforts at weapons procurement and negotiating a peace treaty with Liberian President Charles Taylor. But nothing had prepared me for Uzbekistan, a country immediately north of Afghanistan in the heart of hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia. President Islam Karimov had reigned here as the Soviet satrap since 1989; after independence two years later, he had managed to make poverty and repression even worse than in Soviet times.
In Karimov's Uzbekistan, no dissent is allowed. Media are state-controlled, and opposition parties are banned from elections. Millions of people, including children, toil on vast state-owned cotton farms, receiving some $2 a month for working 70-hour weeks. Their labor has made Uzbekistan the world's second-largest cotton exporter. More than 10,000 dissidents are held in Soviet-style gulags. Many are pro-democracy advocates, but anyone showing religious enthusiasm is also swept up. Most are Muslims, but Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses are routinely persecuted, too.
I saw this happening in a country regarded as a strategic friend by the United States, which was looking for well-placed allies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Karimov had delivered for President Bush, allowing the United States to take over a major former Soviet airbase at Karshi-Khanabad to help wage war in neighboring Afghanistan; the several thousand U.S. forces stationed there were the first Americans permitted to serve in former Soviet territory. As a reward, Karimov had been Bush's guest for tea in the White House in March 2002.
It was clear by the time I arrived in Tashkent a few months later that the United States was handsomely rewarding Karimov's cooperation. Hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid were flowing to the country -- after the U.S. government, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, repeatedly certified that the Uzbek government was making progress on human rights and democracy. According to a press release distributed to local media by the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent in December 2002, the Karimov regime received more than $500 million in U.S. aid that year alone. That included $120 million for the Uzbek armed forces and more than $80 million for the re-branded Uzbek security services, successor to the KGB.
In other words, when the prisoner was boiled to death that summer, U.S. taxpayers had helped heat the water.
In mid-October, I made a speech at Freedom House in Uzbekistan, in which I made plain what I had learned in my brief time there. "Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy," I asserted, contradicting the U.S. ambassador, John Herbst, who had spoken before me. I went on to detail the political prisoners, prevalence of torture and lack of basic freedoms. I spoke out despite a written rebuke I had received from my superiors in London, chastising me for being "over-focused on human rights." Apparently, my job was to stand beside my U.S. colleague and support our Uzbek ally.
Danish journalist Michael Andersen later wrote of conversations he had had with U.S. diplomats in Uzbekistan the day after my remarks. "Murray is a finished man here," one told him.