Murder in Samarkand: The Curmudgeon Review

It is probably your patriotic duty not to buy it.

By Philip Challinor in The Curmudgeon

It begins with an expression of amazement by a member of the British embassy staff in Uzbekistan. The source of his amazement is the fact that the British ambassador to Uzbekistan has any interest in what might be happening in that part of Uzbekistan which lies outside the gates of his residence. Craig Murray’s predecessors, and presumably successors, displayed no such interest.

As Murray discovered to his cost, this was not incompetence or negligence on their part. Uzbekistan, under the dissident-boiling regime of Islam Karimov, was a designated vital ally in the War Against the Abstract Noun and therefore an automatic recipient of the Bush administration’s seal of approval as a burgeoning democracy. Accordingly, it was the British ambassador’s patriotic duty to sit on his hands, make appropriate noises at social functions, and congratulate the regime on its nonexistent reforms while Karimov’s goons raped as many people and pulled out as many fingernails as they dashed well pleased.

Although a promising diplomat with experience in Nigeria, Ghana and Poland, Murray was unpatriotic enough to allow his personal distaste for torture and totalitarianism to get in the way of his professional judgement. The Foreign Office offered him the gentleman’s way out: a chance to resign rather than be kicked out on charges so incompetently fabricated they were an insult to the craft of trumping-up. Murray compares it to the good old-fashioned Britishness of being given a revolver and expected to do the decent thing; instead of which “I picked it up and started shooting at the bastards”. Truly, our values are not what they once were.

Starting with his witnessing of a dissident “trial”, which was largely a platform for the judge to make bad jokes about Muslims before passing sentence, Murray recounts his professional and personal adventures and vicissitudes from his arrival in Tashkent to his formal suspension from duty and resignation from the diplomatic service. It is clear that he made thoroughly unscrupulous use of his ambassadorial status not only to promote British commercial and cultural interests in Uzbekistan, but also to investigate human rights abuses and even, in one instance, to encourage asylum seekers to apply to the United Kingdom for accommodation. It is heartening to report that, for a change, they were turned down quickly enough to spare the taxpayer both the expense of deporting them and the tedium of reading about them in the Daily Mail.

Naturally, the Foreign Office did all it could to rein in Murray’s excesses. Their efforts to keep him from making a fool of himself led naturally to the ruin of his health, both physical and mental; and naturally, having nothing to hide, the Government has censored his book, delayed its publication and done its best to suppress the correspondence (released under the Freedom of Information Act) which substantiates Murray’s claims. Fortunately, these documents have been mirrored elsewhere, so it is still possible to gain some idea of the Government’s honesty, innocence and pristine attachment to principle.

Like many enemies of truth and decency, Murray exerts a certain dangerous charm. Despite the often harrowing subject matter, his book is always readable, never boring and sometimes hilarious. It is probably your patriotic duty not to buy it; and you certainly will not sleep better if you believe it, even though it does include a tip on how best to drink vodka with the KGB. Doubtless this is why the Government has done so much to protect us from it.