Help a repressive regime, courtesy of 'The Guardian'

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The Independent Online

Uzbekistan suffers one of the world's most brutal regimes. President Islam Karimov's, right, government has sanctioned the boiling of dissidents, shooting of peaceful protesters, police rapes, forced labour and torture.

Not the obvious place for a package holiday, then. Nevertheless, on Saturday, The Guardian ran a "reader offer" in conjunction with the reputable travel agency Cox & Kings promoting the chance to visit the "Heart of Central Asia".

Those stumping up £975 for a 10-day trip fill the coffers of the government airline Uzbekistan Airways.

Britain's former ambassador to the country, Craig Murray, was hounded out by the Foreign Office and the CIA after daring to criticise human rights abuses.

"I'm not against people going," he said. "It is a beautiful country with mystical historic sites to visit. But being herded on coach tours and supporting the state economy is at best naïve."

A spokeswoman for the opposition politician Mohammed Salih, says: "The government monitors foreigners and restricts their movement. Everyone is watched and listened to."

Cox & Kings did not wish to comment on "the human rights side of it." A spokesman added: "There are many countries where companies offer tours, such as Cuba and China, with human rights allegations against them. It is a difficult conversation to get into."

Uzbekistan's hottest travel guide is Murray's Murder in Samarkand, which details the finer points of killing, torture and suppression. Happy bedtime reading!

Oops... you're still on air, Julie

Getting caught off-mic can be embarrassing (just ask Tony Blair or female CNN news anchors).

Yesterday morning, there was an uncomfortable moment for Julie Walters, left, during her appearance on Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

The garrulous actor spoke to Jenni Murray about her latest movie, Driving Lessons. After being thanked for her time, Walters, thinking she was off air, began to confide in Murray about her relationship with her dead mother.

"It's so dominating ... My mother was, the whole thing has dominated my life, my mother's relationship," she said.

"I often find myself going 'Mum put this right because it's all your fault.' "

When Murray indicated they were still live, Walters shouted: "Did you hear that? All of it? Oh stop, you said I ... " before trailing off.

Caught out by samosas

Pakistan's cricket team has maintained a vow of omertà since being accused of ball tampering and refusing to finish a Test match against England.

A reception last week for the players at the Pakistani High Commissioner's lavish Hampstead residence proved no different. The cricketers arrived tired after training and avoided chatter with diplomats, soon vanishing altogether.

They were found in the kitchen, picking at silver trays of snacks - which may interest Pakistan's coach Bob Woolmer, who has his men on a strict low-fat diet.

"They were famished," says my source. "Stuffing their faces with samosas, pakoras, puris and other greasy treats while no one was looking."

And the bloaters, led by Inzamam ul-Haq, still walloped our lads at Lord's two days later. Come on England!

Junk e-mail

Here is a distraction for a boring Tuesday morning. Have a go at e-mailing Andrew Franklin, the founder and managing director of Profile Books.

Franklin, whose company hit the big time three years ago with Lynne Truss's totalitarian grammar tome Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is currently on holiday and has left an Out of Office Autoreply.

In it, he explains his absence and offers a mobile number to catch him on with important queries.

He then writes: "If you're one of those deplorable organisations that send me unwanted junk mail, I hate you and hope you rot in hell."

Steady on!

World's gone mad, says Freddie

Today, on Freddie Mercury's 60th birthday, Pandora boasts a world exclusive interview with the late Queen singer. It comes courtesy of "Psychic Sally" Morgan, a medium consulted by Princess Diana.

Morgan claims to have spoken to Mercury in 2001, reporting his new-found friendship and musical interaction with Beethoven and John Lennon. Yesterday she interviewed him on behalf of Pandora.

Freddie doesn't sound so chirpy. "I can see him sitting in a plush, baroque room. He worries about us and says the world has gone Mad," Morgan tells me. "He thinks the boys [from Queen] are living like old men now! He also misses sex and laughs: 'That's the only pleasure you can't get here, ha, ha, ha.'" Next week: Churchill on Blair's Middle East policy.

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