I’ve never, ever spoken in public about the pain of being a whistleblower. Partly because of the British stiff-upper lip thing and partly as well because if you wish to try eventually to get on and reestablish yourself then it doesn’t do to show weakness. …
I was sitting in this place on my own and feeling rather lonely. And there were a whole bunch of people in dark suits coming from government offices, in many cases in groups, and there they were with the men’s suits sleek and the ladies, the whole office, power-politics thing going on, having after-dinner champagne in the posh bar.
And I was remembering how many times I’d been the center of such groups and of how successful my life used to be. I was a British ambassador at the age of 42. The average age for such a post is 57.
I was successful in worldly terms. And I think I almost never sat alone at such a place. Normally if I had been alone in such a place, I would have ended up probably in the company of a beautiful young lady of some kind.
I tell you that partly because this whole question of personal morality is a complicated one. I would never, ever, no one would have ever pointed at me as someone likely to become or to be a person of conscience. And yet eventually I found myself on the outside and treated in a way that challenged my whole view of the world.
Let me start to tell you something about how that happened. I was a British ambassador in Uzbekistan and I was told before I went that Uzbekistan was an important ally in the war on terror, had given the United States a very important airbase which was a forward mounting post for Afghanistan, and was a bulwark against Islamic extremism in Central Asia.
When I got there I found it was a dreadful regime, absolutely totalitarian. And there’s a difference between dictatorship of which there are many and a totalitarian dictatorship which unless you’ve actually been in one is hard to comprehend.
There’s absolutely no free media whatsoever. News on every single channel, the news programs start with 12 items about what the president did today. And that’s it. That is the news. There are no other news channels and international news channels are blocked.
There are about 12,000 political prisoners. Any sign of religious enthusiasm for any religion will get you put into jail. The majority of people are predominantly Muslim. But if you are to carry out the rituals of the Muslim religion, particularly if you were to pray five times a day, you’d be in jail very quickly. Young men are put in jail for growing beards.
It’s not the only religion which is outlawed. The jails are actually quite full of Baptists. Being Baptist is illegal in Uzbekistan. I’m sure that Methodists and Quakers would be illegal, too, It’s just that they haven’t got any so they haven’t gotten around to making them illegal.
And it’s really not a joke. If you are put into prison in Uzbekistan the chances of coming out again alive are less than even. And most of the prisons are still the old Soviet gulags in the most literal sense. They are physically the same places. The biggest one being the Jaslyk gulag in the deserts of the Kizyl Kum.
I had only been there for a week or two when I went to a show trial of an al-Qaeda terrorist they had caught. It was a big event put on partly for the benefit of the American embassy to demonstrate the strength of the U.S.-Uzbek alliance against terrorism.
When I got there, to call the trial unconvincing would be an underestimate. There was one moment when this old man [who] had given evidence that his nephew was a member of al-Qaeda and had personally met Osama bin Laden. And like everybody else in that court he was absolutely terrified.
But suddenly as he was giving his evidence, he seemed from somewhere to find an inner strength. He was a very old man but he stood taller and said in a stronger voice, he said, “This is not true. This is not true. They tortured my children in front of me until I signed this. I had never heard of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden.”
He was then hustled out of the court and we never did find out what had happened to him. He was almost certainly killed. But as it happens I was within touching distance of him when he said that and I can’t explain it. It’s not entirely rational. But you could just feel it was true. You could tell he was speaking the truth when he said that.
And that made me start to call into doubt the whole question of the narrative about al-Qaeda in Uzbekistan and the alliance in the war on terror.
Something which took that doubt over the top happened about a week later. The West — because Uzbekistan was our great ally in the war on terror – had shown no interest in the human rights situation at all. In fact, the opposite, going out of its way to support the dictatorship.
So the fact that I seemed to be interested and seemed to be sympathetic came as something of a shock and people [in Uzbekistan] started to come to me.
One of the people who came to me was an old lady, a widow in her 60s whose son had been killed in Jaslyk prison and she brought me photos of the corpse of her son. It had been given back to her in a sealed casket and she’d been ordered not to open the casket but to bury it the next morning, which actually Muslims would do anyway. They always bury a body immediately.
But she disobeyed the instructions not to open the casket. She was a very old lady but very determined. She got the casket open and the body out onto the table and took detailed photos of the body before resealing the casket and burying it. These photos she now brought to me.
I sent them on to the chief pathologist at the University of Glasgow, who actually now by coincidence is the chief pathologist for the United Kingdom. There were a number of photos and he did a detailed report on the body. He said from the photographs the man’s fingernails had been pulled out while he was still alive. Then he had been boiled alive. That was the cause of death, immersion in boiling liquid.
Certainly it wasn’t the only occasion when we came across evidence of people being boiled alive. That was the most extreme form of torture, I suppose, but immersion in boiling liquid of a limb was quite common.
Mutilation of the genitals was common. Suffocation was common, usually by putting a gas mask on people and blocking the air vents until they suffocated. Rape was common, rape with objects, rape with bottles, anal rape, homosexual rape, heterosexual rape, and mutilation of children in front of their parents.
It began with that and became a kind of personal mission for me, I suppose, to do what I could to try to stop this. I spent a great deal of time with my staff gathering evidence on it.
Being a very capricious government, occasionally a victim [of the Uzbek regime] would be released and we’d be able to see them and get medical evidence. More often you’d get letters smuggled out of the gulags and detention centers, evidence from relatives who managed to visit prisoners.
We built up an overwhelming dossier of evidence, and I complained to London about the conduct of our ally in rather strong terms including the photos of the boy being boiled alive.
I received a reply from the British Foreign Office. It said, this is a direct quote, “Dear Ambassador, we are concerned that you are perhaps over-focused on human rights to the detriment of commercial interests.”
I was taken aback. I found that extraordinary. But things had gotten much worse because while we were gathering the information about torture, we were also learning what people were forced to confess to under torture.
People aren’t tortured for no reason. They’re tortured in order to extract some information or to get them to admit to things, and normally the reason you torture people is to get them to admit to things that aren’t actually true. They were having to confess to membership in al-Qaeda, to being at training camps in Afghanistan, personally meeting Osama bin Laden.
At the same time, we were receiving CIA intelligence. MI-6 and the CIA share all their intelligence. So I was getting all the CIA intelligence on Uzbekistan and it was saying that detainees had confessed to membership in al-Qaeda and being in training camps in Afghanistan and to meeting Osama bin Laden.
One way and another I was piecing together the fact that the CIA material came from the Uzbek torture sessions.
I didn’t want to make a fool of myself so I sent my deputy, a lady called Karen Moran, to see the CIA head of station and say to him, “My ambassador is worried your intelligence might be coming from torture. Is there anything he’s missing?”
She reported back to me that the CIA head of station said, “Yes, it probably is coming from torture, but we don’t see that as a problem in the context of the war on terror.”
In addition to which I learned that CIA were actually flying people to Uzbekistan in order to be tortured. I should be quite clear that I knew for certain and reported back to London that people were being handed over by the CIA to the Uzbek intelligence services and were being subjected to the most horrible tortures.
I didn’t realize that they weren’t Uzbek. I presumed simply that these were Uzbek people who had been captured elsewhere and were being sent in.
I now know from things I’ve learned subsequently, including the facts that the Council of Europe parliamentary inquiry into extraordinary rendition found that 90 percent of all the flights that called at the secret prison in Poland run by the CIA as a torture center for extraordinary rendition, 90 percent of those flights next went straight on to Tashkent [the capital of Uzbekistan].
There was an overwhelming body of evidence that actually people from all over the world were being taken by the CIA to Uzbekistan specifically in order to be tortured. I didn’t know that. I thought it was only Uzbeks, but nonetheless, I was complaining internally as hard as I could.
The result of which was that even when I was only complaining internally, I was subjected to the most dreadful pattern of things which I still find it hard to believe happened.
I was suddenly accused of issuing visas in return for sex, stealing money from the post account, of being an alcoholic, of driving an embassy vehicle down a flight of stairs, which is extraordinary because I can’t drive. I’ve never driven in my life. I don’t have a driving license. My eyesight is terrible. …
But I was accused of all these unbelievable accusations, which were leaked to the tabloid media, and I spent a whole year of tabloid stories about sex-mad ambassador, blah-blah-blah. And I hadn’t even gone public. What I had done was write a couple of memos saying that this collusion with torture is illegal under a number of international conventions including the UN Convention Against Torture.
I couldn’t believe [what was happening], I’d been a very successful foreign service officer for over 20 years. The British Foreign Service is small. Actual diplomats, as opposed to [support] staff, are only about 2,000 people, I worked there for over 20 years. I knew most of them by name. All the people involved in smearing me, trying to taint me on false charges, were people I thought were my friends. It’s really hard when people you think are your friends [lie about you].
I’m writing memos saying it’s illegal to torture people, children are being tortured in front of their parents. And they’re writing memos back saying it depends on the definition of complicity under Article Four of the UN Convention.
I’m thinking what’s happening to their moral sense, and I never, ever considered myself a good person, at all. Yet I couldn’t see where they were coming from and I still don’t; I still don’t understand it to this day.
And then these people – and I’m absolutely certain quite knowingly – tried to negate what they saw as these unpatriotic things. I was told I was viewed now as unpatriotic, by trying to land me with false allegations.
I went through a five-month fight and formal charges. I was found eventually not guilty on all charges, but my reputation was ruined forever because the tabloid media all carried the allegations against me in 25-point headlines and the fact I was acquitted in two sentences on page 19. It’s extraordinary.
The thing that came out of it most strongly for me is how in a bureaucratic structure, if the government can convince people that there is a serious threat to the nation, ordinary people who are not bad people will go along with things that they know are bad, like torture, like trying to stain an innocent man.
And it’s circular, because the extraordinary thing about it was that the whole point of the intelligence being obtained under torture was to actually exaggerate the terrorist threats and to exaggerate the strength of al-Qaeda.
That was the whole point of why people were being tortured, to confess that they were members of al-Qaeda when they weren’t members of al-Qaeda and to denounce long lists of names of people as members of al-Qaeda who weren’t members of al-Qaeda.
I always tell my favorite example which is they gave me a long list of names of people whom people were forced to denounce and I often saw names of people I knew.
One day, I got this list from the CIA of names of a couple dozen al-Qaeda members and I knew one really quite well, an old dissident professor, a very distinguished man who was actually a Jehovah’s Witness, and there aren’t many Jehovah’s Witnesses in al-Qaeda. I’d even bet that al-Qaeda don’t even try to recruit Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m quite sure that Jehovah’s Witnesses would try to recruit al-Qaeda.
So much of this intelligence was nonsense. It was untrue and it was designed to paint a false picture. The purpose of the false picture was to make people feel afraid. What was it really about. …
I want to mention this book, which is the greatest book that I’ve ever written. It’s called Murder in Samarkand and recounts in detail what I have just told you together with the documentary evidence behind it.
But the most interesting bit of the entire book comes before the page numbers start, which is a facsimile of a letter from Enron, from Kenneth Lay, chairman of Enron, to the honorable George W. Bush, governor of the state of Texas. It was written on April 3, 1997, sometime before Bush became president.
It reads, I’ll just read you two or three sentences, “Dear George, you will be meeting with Ambassador Sadyq Safaev, Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to the United States on April 8th. … Enron has established an office in Tashkent and we are negotiating a $2 billion joint venture with Neftegas of Uzbekistan … to develop Uzbekistan’s natural gas and transport it to markets in Europe … This project can bring significant economic opportunities to Texas.”
Not everyone in Texas, of course. George Bush and Ken Lay, in particular.
That’s actually what it was about. All this stuff about al-Qaeda that they were inventing, extreme Islamists in Central Asia that they were inventing.
I have hundreds and hundreds of Uzbek friends now. Every single one of them drinks vodka. It is not a good place for al-Qaeda. They were inventing the threat in order to cover up the fact that their real motive was Enron’s gas contract and that was the plain and honest truth of the matter.
Just as almost everything you see about Afghanistan is a cover for the fact that the actual motive is the pipeline they wish to build over Afghanistan to bring out Uzbek and Turkmen natural gas which together is valued at up to $10 trillion, which they want to bring over Afghanistan and down to the Arabian Sea to make it available for export.
And we are living in a world where people, a small number of people, with incredible political clout and huge amounts of money, are prepared to see millions die for their personal economic gain and where, even worse, most people in bureaucracies are prepared to go along with it for their own much smaller economic gain, all within this psychological mirage which is so much of the war on terror.
It’s hard to stand against it. I do think things are a little more sane now than they were a year or two ago. I do think there’s a greater understanding, but you’ll never hear what I just told you in the mainstream media. It’s impossible to get it there.