Our man in trouble

REVIEWED BY MAX HASTINGS in the The Sunday Times

It is a horrible story, and rings horribly true. Murray’s testimony forms another piece in the Iraq-WMD-Bush-war-on-terror-Afghanistan jigsaw of shame. It helps explain the moral bankruptcy to which the Blair government has reduced itself.

MURDER IN SAMARKAND: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror

by Craig Murray

Craig Murray is a former British ambassador to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. To get the flavour of his astonishing career there from 2002-04, consider some of the headings under his name in this book’s index: ‘accusations against; bugging suspicions; sacking; Tashkent, asked to leave; topless bathers; visas for sex allegations; marriage, end of’. Lest anyone still fears this is a humdrum diplomatic memoir, here is Murray’ s account of his first meeting with a teenage belly dancer in a Tashkent niterie: ‘I astonished her by saying that I wanted her to give up the club and be my mistress. I explained that I could not marry her, as I was married, but I would keep her. I gave her my card and urged her to phone me.’

Phew. If this was Foreign Office life in the 21st century, candidates would be breaking down doors to join the party. Only it is not, of course. Murray, a kilted philanderer of heroic recklessness, proved an embarrassment to his masters from the day of his appointment, and ended up parting brass rags with them in a welter of mental breakdowns, publicity, divorce and mutual recriminations that he recounts with masochistic frankness.

‘So much for your dolly-bird secretary,’ he records his wife remarking, in a characteristic marital conversation after a less-than-successful embassy dinner. ‘Even if you aren’t screwing her, everybody thinks you are, and that suits you and your bloody ego!’

The pity of all this soap-opera stuff is that it cripples Murray’s purpose in writing his book: to expose the ghastly conduct of the Uzbek dictatorship and Anglo-American collusion with it. From the day Murray arrived in Tashkent in 2002, aged 43, he was appalled to discover that the regime of President Islam Karimov subsisted on a diet of mass murder, torture and slavery. He not only reported in detail to London, he also began to make speeches about human-rights abuse. His outspoken behaviour earned applause from the western media, oppressed Uzbeks and a few diplomatic colleagues, together with fury from the American ambassador and the Foreign Office.

George Bush and Tony Blair were preparing to invade Iraq. The Uzbek government was among their few Asian supporters. Washington was profoundly grateful to Karimov for granting the Americans basing rights in his country, as well as supporting Bush’s idiotic ‘war on terror’, which provided useful cover for Karimov’s persecution of dissidents.

American politicians and diplomats justified cash handouts to Karimov by asserting that Uzbekistan was moving towards democracy; that its human-rights record was improving. Murray encountered daily proof that this view was a travesty. The title of his book refers to an episode when, with his Foreign Office superior, he visited a prominent dissident. Within hours of their departure the man’s grandson was murdered, almost certainly by government agents. Murray was certain that this was retribution for meeting the British.

Yet the FCO refused to make a fuss. Pressure on Murray from Whitehall mounted, as he became passionately critical of the relationship between Whitehall secret services and the Uzbeks, who routinely tortured people to death to gain information. At one point, Murray attended a meeting in London at which a senior Foreign Office lawyer sought to soothe the ambassador, assuring him that there was no legal barrier to the British government’s use of evidence gained by torture in its campaign against terrorism.

It is a horrible story, and rings horribly true. Murray’s testimony forms another piece in the Iraq-WMD-Bush-war-on-terror-Afghanistan jigsaw of shame. It helps explain the moral bankruptcy to which the Blair government has reduced itself. Murray makes an overwhelming case that Uzbekistan is ruled by a disgustingly cruel and corrupt regime, which the West should have no friendly traffic with.

Unfortunately, however, he torpedoed his credibility, and destroyed his career, by entangling private excesses in his crusade for Uzbek human rights. He is not the first ambassador to display an eye for pretty girls, suffer a marriage break-up, experience staff ructions at his embassy, or even suffer breakdowns that caused him twice to be airlifted to psychiatric care at St Thomas’s Hospital. For all this to happen while he was in the midst of wrangling with London about the Uzbek regime suggests an almost demented lack of judgment. His narrative of his behaviour tips into self-parody. Between harrowing accounts of how the Uzbek police routinely rape detainees, and murdered two dissidents by boiling them alive, Murray describes a haggle with his belly dancer’s father about her price.

Dad: ‘You know, you should pay more if a girl is beautiful.’

Murray: ‘Yes, I should jolly well think so.’

D: ‘And Nadira is beautiful, is she not?’

M: ‘Yes, very beautiful.’

D: ‘And you know, you should pay more if a girl is educated.’

M: ‘I can see that.’

D: ‘And she’s the girlfriend of the British ambassador. That’s valuable.’

M: ‘But I’m the British ambassador.’

D: ‘But think how much another man would pay for the former girlfriend of the British ambassador.’

Murray writes: ‘We opened another bottle of vodka and dissolved into giggles.’ His book reads like a protracted professional suicide note, and yes, he mentions that he considered suicide, too. Clare Short, as overseas aid minister, promised him support, but promptly resigned from office. Uzbek staff at the British Embassy, together with a raft of British businesses operating in the country, supplied testimonials to Murray’s courage as a diplomat. But the Foreign Office was given plenty of good reasons as well as bad ones to sack our man in Tashkent. Murray defied orders not to return to his post following leave. Finally, he developed serious heart trouble: ‘Bloody hell. I was going to die, pretty fast.’ An intransigent appearance on Radio 4’s Today caused the FCO to charge him with gross misconduct.

He took severance and stood on a human-rights ticket against Jack Straw in Blackburn at the 2005 general election. It seems that they do not go big on human rights in Blackburn, for he polled only 2,085 votes. He somehow got his belly dancer into Britain, but not before she was raped by the Uzbek police. ‘I was hurt about the rapes,’ writes Murray, in a line that would have commended itself to Charles Pooter, though the ambassador was relieved to discover that she had been assaulted only anally.

For the reader, as well as Murray, it becomes hard to judge where tears begin and laughter rightfully stops. Uzbekistan is obviously a place from hell, and Murray did well to say so. But one cannot alternate a martyr’s crown with cap and bells, as he chose to do. The sex bits may help to sell this richly black comic tale, but it would have been better for him, and certainly for his career, if he had stayed serious. He was an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country, but ends up sounding more like the Rector of Stiffkey than St Francis of Assisi.