[Editor's Note: This exclusive interview was made possible by the support of paid subscribers of The Dissenter. Become a supporter.]
Prisoners and prison staff at Her Majesty's Prison Edinburgh in Scotland, or Saughton Prison, faced a serious outbreak of COVID-19 at a time when inmates were explicitly discouraged from requesting COVID tests, according to diplomat-turned whistleblower Craig Murray.
“There was a major COVID outbreak in the prison in the last 6 weeks of my incarceration," Murray recalled. While COVID was present in the prison throughout his stay there, Murray said that between October 20 and November 20, “there were more than 200 positive tests for COVID in the jail."
“That’s 200 out of a population of 900," he added, emphasizing that all of these prisoners would have been symptomatic. (Prisoners who weren't symptomatic were not tested.)
While the Scottish government urged the entire population to test themselves with lateral flow tests more than twice a week, whether they had symptoms or not, it was difficult for prisoners to get a test.
On December 1, one day after his release from prison, Murray spoke in an exclusive interview to The Dissenter. He was the first journalist to be imprisoned for media contempt of court in Scotland in over 70 years, according to his defense team.
His conviction stemmed from his coverage of the sex assault trial of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Murray, a longtime supporter of Scottish independence, appears to have fallen foul of a split within the Scottish National Party (SNP) over how strongly the administration of the current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pushing for independence.
As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads through Scotland and the wider United Kingdom, and authorities claim they are taking action to prevent outbreaks, Murray's account of his time in prison once again focuses attention on a vulnerable prison population often neglected during the pandemic.
“When people started going down like flies all around me, I applied for a COVID test, which I did orally. I didn’t get a response so I put in the application in writing. Two weeks after that I became unwell and had some symptoms, largely upset stomach symptoms. And at that stage, because I was ill they gave me a COVID test, but in general, prisoners who didn’t have symptoms weren’t tested."
Prisoners in the cells on each side of Murray became ill with COVID, though the cells themselves are not "hermetically sealed" and the window, which is separated by bars, cannot open to let in fresh air.
Murray said staff discouraged prisoners, even the symptomatic ones, from asking to be tested in an environment Murray described as “filthy” with rats scurrying around cells.
One prisoner Murray spoke to had symptoms, including a cough, tight chest, and difficulty breathing. They asked for a COVID test from a nurse. “The nurse had said to him, are you sure you want a COVID test? Because if you’re positive you’ll be banged up basically in solitary confinement for three weeks. So, are you sure you want one?”
Murray believes the combination of failing to mass test prisoners whilst also discouraging prisoners from getting tested, meant that authorities were in effect falsifying the COVID-19 figures within Saughton.
I Thought They Were 'Attempting To Kill Me'
The Dissenter interviewed Murray at his office in his family home, which is situated within a quiet suburb of Scotland's capital, Edinburgh.
His face was freshly smooth after his wife Nadira took him for a hot Turkish shave only a couple hours earlier, removing a beard which grew considerably during his incarceration.
“It’s a very unpleasant experience,” Murray stated in a manner that was relaxed but also introspective. “I was confined in a cell, which was 12 feet by 8 feet. I was confined in that for a minimum of 22 hours a day. For much of the period of 23 hours a day, with very little association with other prisoners," he said.
He was “surrounded by the noise and antagonisms of a jail, which contains a lot of… percentage of the population who are violent or problematic in other ways. They may be suffering from drug addiction and withdrawal for example, but there’s an awful lot of noise clatter and apparent hostility in the background, sounds you hear as you’re locked in your cell.”
Murray, who is 62 years old and has heart and lung conditions that make him “highly vulnerable” to COVID-19, found he was surrounded by people catching the virus and falling ill. He considers it quite extraordinary that he was left in such a situation and did not contract the virus.
“It led me to have seriously paranoid thoughts whether they were attempting to kill me. It really was and is to me incredible that you would leave a highly vulnerable person deliberately exposed to COVID in that way," Murray shared.
Campaign organizations and health experts in the U.K. have made repeated calls over the past two years urging that the rights of prisoners be protected during the pandemic; that they have the same healthcare access as the public and measures be taken to avoid prison outbreaks.
In May 2020, the heads of multiple United Nations organizations, as well as the head of the World Health Organization, signed a statement urging political leaders to “consider limiting the deprivation of liberty” to a measure of “last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures,” including release mechanisms for those “at particular risk of COVID-19, such as older people and people with pre-existing health conditions, as well as other people who could be released without compromising public safety.”
The Scottish government released nonviolent prisoners early in order to reduce the risk of COVID outbreaks but ended that policy shortly before Murray would have benefited from it. It is unclear as to why the policy was terminated.
As Murray recounted, the majority of prison staff in his wing caught COVID and took time off work sick. Some of them were "quite seriously" ill.
“One of them was off for approximately six weeks, and when he came back he had lost a huge amount of weight, and he had trouble speaking. His voice was just totally different. He plainly had been very ill indeed."
“Prison staff did their very best in very difficult circumstances”, Murray contended, “displaying extraordinary courage” as they took meals into each cell and dirty dishes out every day with only very rudimentary personal protective equipment (PPE).
But staff were "spreaders of the illness as they went around from cell-to-cell administering to the prisoners who were locked in.”
The Only Civil Prisoner Out Of 900 Inmates
As a civil prisoner, Murray should have been entitled to unlimited visits with his lawyers and daily visits with family and other people. Civil prisoners receive more privileges and different treatment than those convicted of criminal offenses.
However, due to the COVID outbreak many of these privileges remained theoretical. Access to the library and gym was prohibited throughout his incarceration. Only 30 minutes were permitted for prisoners to shower and try to make phone calls.
With one out of two of the landlines typically out of order and up to 20 prisoners queuing up to access the phones, each prisoner ultimately had a minute to speak on the phone (assuming they even made a phone call).
Circumstances were less than ideal, given the viral outbreak and the fact that prisoners could hear each other’s calls. However, prisoners were given 10 minutes a day on a mobile phone to call approved numbers, as a special exemption due to COVID.
Murray described this as a “godsend” as it allowed him to say goodnight to his children each evening.
“[T]hat was very helpful in keeping me sane because being locked in a 12-foot by eight-foot cell for most of the time, for 22.5 or 23 hours a day, really is very difficult with the limitations on communications with people that that brings," he declared.
“The oppressive nature of just being stuck with your own thoughts, that’s actually quite hard. That provision of the mobile phone so you could at least say good night to your children was one of the major factors in helping me get through this."
But Murray continued, “[W]hether 10 minutes allowance on a telephone really makes up for losing three or four hours in the library or gym, in which you could talk and associate with your fellow prisoners, is an interesting question.”
If Murray had been a nonviolent criminal prisoner, he would have been electronically tagged and released after two months. However, due to what appears to have been a legislative oversight, as a civil prisoner, Murray was not entitled to early release.
“Out of the 900 prisoners in Saughton prison, I was the only civil prisoner. The other 899 were all criminal prisoners," he explained.
According to Murray, imprisonment for civil offenses is so rare that Scottish lawmakers apparently dropped the ball with regard to allowing such people to be tagged and released like criminal prisoners.
Stripped And Shackled
On the whole, Murray claimed he was treated well by prison staff. Several went out of their way to explain their sympathies or even outright support for the former ambassador to Uzbekistan.
“A couple of them said to me that they didn’t sign up to guard political prisoners and were plainly disgusted by the situation," he said. “Within the constraints in which they had to work and the rules which governed their lives, they were as pleasant to me as it’s possible to be by and large.”
However, one incident in particular represented egregious abuse by prison authorities and involved private contractors hired by the government.
“I had to go for a consultant’s appointment at Edinburgh hospital or Edinburgh infirmary, and I was taken to go to a consultant’s appointment. I was strip searched on leaving the jail.”
Having been strip searched, Murray was informed that he would be handcuffed to two security guards for the visit to hospital and was told that he would remain handcuffed to the security guards inside the hospital. If, for purposes of his medical examination, more freedom of movement was needed, he would be chained as opposed to handcuffed.
“I refused that. I said this is ludicrous. I am a civil prisoner here for contempt of court. I am not violent in any sense," Murray stated.
He also emphasized that such treatment violated prison rules, which explicitly outline that any prisoner taken on a visit outside of prison, for example to hospital, “must be protected from insult or curiosity or publicity.”
"Marching someone in handcuffs to a public hospital is hardly protecting them from curiosity or insult.” It is a “ridiculously undignified way of treating people,” who are harmless and ill, he continued.
The guards to whom Murray would have been shackled, he later discovered, were from a private company.The practice of shackling is apparently a consequence of the privatization of escorting prisoners outside of prison, as the companies apparently face penalties if anyone escapes their custody.
GEOAmey operates the contract for the Scottish Court Custody and Prisoner Escorting Service on behalf of the Scottish Prison Service as well as for similar services in England and Wales. It is a joint venture [PDF] formed by GEO Group, which has a documented history of death, abuse, and neglect (especially in the U.S.).
"Our contracts for the provision of these services have an annual revenue value of approximately $150 million [a little more than £113 million]," according to the GEO Group.
Staying Connected To The Outside World
The well-known politics and human rights blogger was able to remain in-the-know about current events, such as the United States government’s appeal in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s case or the COP26 climate change summit, as a result of letters that well-wishers sent him.
“[P]eople would write me letters and tell me, and people would look up articles on the internet, print them out, put them in an envelope [with a] stamp on it, and post them to me," Murray explained.
Counting letters, cards, and emails, Murray estimates around 3,000 people wrote to him while he was in prison, which he described as “absolutely astonishing.”
His family constructed a three-dimensional vine-like collage out of dozens of cards and letters, which currently spiral down the corner of the wall in one of their rooms.
Before his imprisonment, Murray “hadn’t fully taken on board the extent to which imprisonment and addiction are related.”
“A large majority, at least 80 percent (probably higher), of the people in prison are themselves addicted to drugs and fueling their addiction, paying for their addiction, is what causes them to turn to crime. Most of which is quite petty crime.”
Over three-quarters of prisoners in Scotland are addicted to drugs, Murray estimated. “Their behavior is either occasioned by their addiction, or theft in order to pay for drugs, or they're dealing in drugs" to pay for their addiction rather than as a "criminal mastermind."
Scotland has one of the highest per capita prison populations in Europe, though it is still below that of England and Wales.
A Conviction Which Threatens Press Freedom
Although Murray has served his sentence, he still intends on challenging the conviction as well as the sentence itself as being disproportionate.
Murray is currently engaged in intense discussions with his lawyers over the nature of his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Before the trial against Alex Salmond, emails and text messages leaked to the public domain appeared to substantiate claims of a conspiracy, between senior civil servants and members of the SNP, to stitch up Salmond on sex assault charges.
A judge-led inquiry into the prosecution against the former First Minister also found it to be unlawful and tainted by apparent bias. Salmond was ultimately acquitted on all charges.
Murray brought extensive attention to these facts in his blog, before Salmond’s trial, and was heavily critical of the prosecution which he described as politically motivated.
The Scottish government filed a contempt of court petition against Murray following Salmond’s acquittal. They alleged that some of Murray’s posts possessed information which could either on their own—or in conjunction with information that could be obtained by other means—be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, resulting in the identification of one of the complainants in Salmond’s case.
“I was told face-to-face by the former First Minister of Scotland that the current First Minister of Scotland was behind an attempt to frame him on criminal charges," Murray said. “That’s a huge story with massive political ramifications."
Murray insisted there was both a duty and a right to tell that story, guaranteed under the common law and the European Convention of Human Rights.
As Murray claims, those making the allegations "were people extremely close to the current first minister. They were people with whom she interacts with every day, people very, very close to her, and they were people who themselves hold powerful positions within the state and still do hold powerful positions within the state.”
His situation required that he balance the right to anonymity of the women making accusations with the need to cover such a politically significant case.
Murray stressed that he does not believe more information about the witnesses should be permitted to be published, merely that he tried to strike the correct balance in his writing “by giving people the flavor” of the situation by noting the proximity of the women to the power center as being key to the allegation of conspiracy against the former First Minister.
Furthermore, Murray is very troubled by the distinction Judge Lady Leeona Dorrian made between bloggers and members of "new media" and mainstream media during her sentencing remarks after Murray’s conviction.
“She says that bloggers and mainstream media should be judged by different standards, different standards apply. And it appears equally well that argument could be applied by her or other courts to the question of who is prosecuted, of selective prosecution, that a blogger and a member of the mainstream media could write precisely the same thing and one could be prosecuted for it and the other would not, which is of course what in fact effectively happened in my case.”
There is a lot of precedent from the European Court against the jailing of journalists, and so Murray’s lawyers are strongly behind pushing an appeal on that count. But Murray and his legal team disagree about whether the courts would be open to hearing an argument that British authorities (as opposed to say Russian or Belarusian) were involved in a politically motivated prosecution against Murray.
The issue is that there is no “smoking gun” evidence to prove that his prosecution is politically motivated.
Other mainstream journalists published as much, if not more, information on the Salmond trial but were not accused of "jigsaw identification." Murray believes this may be because they were biased against Salmond while he was heavily critical of the prosecution.
Murray commissioned a poll which showed that the majority of people who believed they could identify the witnesses in question could do so as a result of articles they read in the BBC or The Scotsman newspaper, not because they read his blog.
One important issue is what the test should be regarding jigsaw identification. Although four articles and one tweet were singled out by the judges as violating the prohibition against identifying the alleged victims in Salmond’s trial, it was not made clear which words, sentences or paragraphs actually violated the order, Murray stressed.
Returning To The Campaign To Free Julian Assange
Although he will be spending time on his appeal and catching up with his family, the writer and blogger is looking forward to getting back to his routine. This includes reimmersing himself in the campaign to free Assange and end the war on WikiLeaks.
Murray also plans to reconnect with a network of whistleblowers that seeks to encourage more whistleblowing against the national security state in the U.S. and the U.K.
It was “extremely frustrating” to miss the U.S. government’s appeal in Assange’s case, Murray said, having covered the extradition case so extensively to date. He is not overly optimistic about the result and lamented Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s decision on January 4 to find against all the human rights grounds upon which extradition should have been opposed.
The extradition request should have been found in breach of the U.K.-U.S. treaty, which says that there can be no extradition for political offenses.
“Julian's so-called crimes are not crimes either in the United States or the United Kingdom” Murray continued. Assange was exercising a right of freedom of journalism and producing good journalism.
That the U.S. government has managed to focus the discussion onto Assange’s mental health instead is "extremely sad" to Murray.
“Having said that, of course, the ordeal Julian's been through would damage anyone," Murray concluded.
He called the attempts to denigrate one of the U.K.’s most distinguished psychiatrists, Professor Michael Kopelman, "despicable." (Kopelman did not initially disclose Stella Moris' relationship to Assange because he was concerned about the risks she may face given the spying on the Ecuador embassy.)
Murray also described the assurances from the U.S. government as “peculiar” given that they remained qualified and could not rule out that Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) would be applied to Assange upon extradition.
Murray had been called to testify in the ongoing Spanish criminal prosecution against former Undercover Global CEO David Morales. Morales allegedly oversaw the illegal spying of Assange’s private and privileged legal and other conversations, on behalf of the CIA, while he was in the Ecuador embassy. But he was unable to submit testimony because he was in prison.
“I was being videotaped, and I presume I'd be giving some testimony as to the nature of my conversations with Julian, which we're not legally privileged, but were still entirely private and under Spanish law and not entitled to be spied upon," Murray explained. It is unclear if he will have another opportunity to testify in Spain.
In addition to his work on whistleblowing and national security reporting, Murray intends to return to writing his biography of Lord George Murray, a general of the last Jacobite rebellion, as well as his blogging and social commentary more broadly.
On the latter point, following his interview with The Dissenter, Murray publicized the fact that his Facebook page was apparently hacked and taken over on August 12, while he was still in prison. He remains locked out of his account.
Facebook informed The Dissenter that they are looking into the matter, though as of publication they have yet to assist Murray in regaining control of his page.