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BBC Depicts US/UK Torture Tolerance

By Richard L. Fricker
February 22, 2010

If you’ve never heard of Craig Murray, then you have an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with the remarkable story of this flawed whistleblower by listening to "A Murder in Samarkand" on BBC’s Radio Four, an adaptation of Murray’s book about his years as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan.

The radio version was written by David Hare, with actor David Tennant playing Murray. The 90-minute drama relives the career of a man with both weaknesses and principles and who pays a high price for having both.

[To listen to the play, go to; the play starts at about the 2:45 mark in the podcast, which will be available for the rest of the week.]

The story takes us back to a time from the past decade when truth was suspended, reality squashed, when double speak, lies and hypocrisy replaced morality and drove foreign policy into the vortex of needless war. Murray was the only British Ambassador to speak out against the invasion of Iraq.

And Murray had good reason for skepticism about George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and its bloody offshoots. Murray knew that a regional “ally” in this conflict, the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov, was torturing and killing thousands under the cover of combating terrorism.

Murray also knew that the governments of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair knew what Karimov was doing and made no protest. This “counter-terror” alliance trumped morality.

In the BBC drama, Hare and Tennant do an excellent job showing Murray as a man often times too smart for his own good. They also show Murray as a man, the youngest ambassador ever appointed by his government in modern times, who drinks heavily and likes women a bit too much.

Despite Murray’s personal flaws, he comes to recognize the grisly reality of the Uzbek government. The ambassador discovers that Karimov uses any excuse to declare dissidents to be terrorists. The "Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan" is Karimov’s arch-enemy and Karimov conjures up the threat of thousands of wild-eyed al-Qaeda-trained IMU militants assembled in the hills waiting to strike.

None of this is true, but the U.S. and British governments don’t care; it gives life to the notion that al-Qaeda is on the march and extreme counter-measures are justified.

Slowly, Murray is able to document what he is hearing from Uzbek citizens, horrors such as the boiling alive of dissidents, old women stripped and beaten until their children sign confessions, men and women raped by bottles and soldiers.

As Murray attempts to bring these human rights violations to light, he meets with stiff opposition from both his own government and the Americans. The play shows him as a man alone, fighting to expose a truth that must be denied. And, the deniers win.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, as the Bush/Blair governments seek to stoke public fears about terrorism, they exploit the alarmist intelligence about Uzbekistan that originates with Karimov’s regime, which hands the material to the CIA, which in turn passes it along to Great Britain’s intelligence arm, MI6.

According to Murray’s later writings, the CIA also availed itself of the Uzbek regime by handing over rendition victims for "interrogation."

International law, of course, prohibits torture. But – as Justice Department lawyers like John Yoo have demonstrated – the definition of torture can be conveniently flexible, and there’s even more ambiguity when the United States derives information from torture done by allied regimes. The key then is to not be in the room while the guy is being boiled alive.

Like any moment in history, there is a back story to the “war on terror” and its merger with the invasion of Iraq. In this case, it is the Blair government’s sometimes successful attempts to suppress Murray’s memos about the Karimov abuses.

Murray is sacked in October 2004, amid leaks to the press about his drinking and womanizing. Meanwhile, his human rights findings are fed into a bureaucratic black hole, until someone, no one knows to this day who, leaks the material to the London Financial Times.

The BBC play also recounts the strained relationship between Murray and U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Jon Purnell, a career Foggy Bottom alum. Purnell later had to deal with Karimov’s slaughter of thousands during an uprising May 13, 2005, the Andijan Massacre. Estimates set the number of dead civilians into the thousands.

The fallout from the killings caused a major policy shift, with Karimov booting out the U.S. bases and ordering Western development agencies and news organizations to leave.

Then, as time passes – with his reputation in shambles – Murray occasionally speaks up for human rights. During a trip to Washington in fall 2009, he talked to a small group about his travails as an unlikely whistleblower. [See’s “How a Torture Protest Killed a Career.”]

Today, Karimov is still firmly entrenched in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Sting gave a special concert there for Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, saying that he had abandoned the idea of cultural boycotts. He didn’t mention that he was paid over a million pounds for the strum and strut.

And the U.S. government is trying to mend relations. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke met with Karimov recently and the two signed an agreement of cooperation and development with a visit from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton planned for the latter half of 2010.

The BBC play, "Murder in Samarkand," provides an insight into an isolated corner of the “war on terror” madness, a story that is both historical and timely.

Murray operates a personal Web site:

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