By Jill Lawless in The Moscow Times
LONDON – Craig Murray says he’s an accidental ambassador. His allies consider him a hero. His opponents say he’s a disaster.
Britain’s former top diplomat in Uzbekistan, Murray was removed from his post in 2004 after accusing the government of torture and of holding thousands of political and religious prisoners.
His comments won him praise from human rights groups, ordinary Uzbeks – and, he says, many other diplomats. But within months the self-confessed whisky-loving womanizer was accused of mismanagement and sexual misconduct, saw his private life splashed across the tabloid press, was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and finally was removed from his post.
Murray is unrepentant about his highly undiplomatic behavior. To the British government’s chagrin, he has published a book, “Murder in Samarkand,” recounting the whole grisly affair.
“There is no point having cocktail-party relationships with fascists,” said Murray, an affable Scot who says his diplomatic career began “completely by mistake” — he took the civil-service exams so he could sit next to a girl he liked.
The British government says the book is a “betrayal of trust” and is considering whether to sue.
Boiled to Death
Murray became one of Britain’s youngest ambassadors when he was appointed in 2002 at the age of 43.
He says 20 years as a diplomat in posts from Poland to Ghana had done little to prepare him for Uzbekistan. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the country became an important ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, providing a military base for U.S. troops operating in neighboring Afghanistan. In return, the United States gave Uzbekistan up to $500 million per year in aid.
Human rights groups say the relationship led the West to overlook the abuses of Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian regime.
Murray blames “a post-Sept. 11 idea that there is only good and evil. You’re with us or you’re against us.”
Soon after arriving in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, Murray attended the trial of a suspected Islamic extremist that he says was clearly biased in favor of the prosecution. Then he was sent photos of a dead Uzbek prisoner. Doctors who looked at the pictures told Murray the man had been boiled to death.
“I just thought, ‘This is crazy,'” said Murray, 47. “How on Earth can we be allied to a guy like Karimov? It makes no sense.”
In his first speech in the country, Murray said Uzbekistan “is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy.”
He kept up the criticism in e-mails to his superiors in London.
Officially, the British government agreed with his criticisms of the country’s rights record. Behind the scenes, Murray says, superiors worked to remove him, laying disciplinary charges — including trading sex for visas, being drunk at work and encouraging staff to drive an embassy Land Rover down a flight of stairs — and pressing him to resign.
Murray, who denied the allegations, refused to quit. Uzbek human rights activists demonstrated outside the embassy to support him. Most of his staff and many Britons in Tashkent sent letters of praise.
He was eventually exonerated by Britain’s Foreign Office. But in October 2004, after being treated for a nervous breakdown — caused, he says, by the stress he was under — and a near-fatal pulmonary embolism, he was withdrawn by his bosses, who said he had lost the confidence of senior officials and colleagues.
A week earlier, a British newspaper had reported Murray’s allegations that British and U.S. intelligence services used information collected under torture in Uzbekistan.
Foreign Office Replies
The Foreign Office insists Britain “unreservedly condemns the use of torture and works hard with the international community to eradicate the process.”
All former officials who write books must submit texts to the government for clearance. Murray’s book was submitted but did not receive final approval before publication, although Murray did remove passages at the government’s request.
“We have written to Craig saying we don’t think it’s right to publish this book,” said a Foreign Office spokesman on the government’s customary condition of anonymity. “We saw it as a betrayal of trust.”
Murray is not the first ambassador to break the diplomats’ code of silence. Former Washington envoy Christopher Meyer’s recent “DC Confidential” describes the behind-the-scenes diplomacy in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Drinking and Romance
But Murray is by far the most candid. His book includes full details of his visits to Tashkent drinking dens, his romance with a 22-year-old Uzbek teacher named Nadira and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage.
The result is a vivid, fast-paced tale in which humor and horror intertwine. Director Michael Winterbottom, who plans to direct a movie version of Murray’s story, likened it to “a very funny version of a Graham Greene novel.”
Descriptions of visits to tortured dissidents and meetings with sinister regime figures alternate with accounts of Murray’s sojourns in Tashkent’s nightspots. “I like to drink and I like to chase women — those are my hobbies in life,” Murray said. “I do that as my private life and I never viewed the diplomatic service as a monastery.”
The Western alliance with Uzbekistan has faltered in the wake of the May 2005 massacre of hundreds of demonstrators by government forces in the town of Andijan.
Karimov’s government rejected international demands for an inquiry into the killings. In July 2005 it expelled the U.S. military from the Karshi-Khanabad base.
Murray left the foreign service to become a thorn in the government’s side. He ran against then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his former boss, in last year’s general election. He writes, appears on television and blogs prolifically. He hopes one day to do development work in Africa.
Despite the ruin of his career, Murray says he has no regrets.
“I’ve done many things which were morally dubious, and as a civil servant I’ve done things I disagreed with because they were government policy,” he said.
“But treating Uzbekistan as an ally when it’s such a vicious place and engaging in cooperation with the Uzbek security services, whose standard method is torture — to me that’s just a different level of moral dilemma.”