Selling our Souls: John Sweeney on Murder in Samarkand 6

From Literary Review, August 2006

Murder in Samarkand: A British Ambassador’s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror

Put aside the clunky subtitle and the garland from moral pimple John Pilger ‘ the anti-Establishment Antipodean’s a hero until you meet him ‘ and what you have here is an amazing narrative, beautifully written, of one man’s war on the War on Terror.

Craig Murray was the youngest British ambassador when he was appointed to represent Her Majesty in the Central Asian tyranny of Uzbekistan. Brilliant, unorthodox, committed to championing the causes of the United Kingdom, free trade and human rights, Murray had served his country with aplomb in Poland, Ghana and in the Citadel in Whitehall, playing real-life, real-time war games against Saddam’s arms-procurement network after the invasion of Kuwait. But the rising star sizzled up like an overdone sausage when he came up against the War on Terror.

The fascination of Craig Murray’s tale of his fall from grace at the hands of the Foreign Office is that he gives so much ammunition to his enemies. He freely admits that he does hang out in dodgy bars, he does drink, he does fall in love with an Uzbek dancer (and English graduate) half his age, he does leave his (long-suffering and admirable) wife and he does have a nervous breakdown. Murray was cared for in St Thomas’s in London:

‘For the next ten days, I was on suicide watch. This involved a burly male nurse watching my every move 24 hours a day, and even following me into the loo. I can promise you, if you are not suicidal before, you will be after ten days of having a large male nurse follow you into the loo.’

But it is the honesty with which Murray reports his predicament that is striking. I do not think that he holds anything back from the reader, and that makes his indictment of the Foreign Office mandarins and then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw all the more compelling. He is an honest man, and that seems to have been his difficulty.

The core of the story is that Murray found President Karimov’s Uzbekistan a disgusting dictatorship where the government runs the heroin trade, business is a personal fiefdom of the ruler’s cronies and dissidents are boiled alive. His problem was that his honest reporting of the situation did not square with how Washington wanted to see it. The script from the White House was that Karimov was onside in the War on Terror, was fighting Muslim extremists and associates of Bin Laden, and was making significant moves towards democracy.

And Britain? The cornerstone of the Atlantic relationship is the USA’UK intelligence-sharing agreement, in which the CIA and the National Security Agency share everything (or nearly everything) with MI6 and GCHQ. The Americans pump out four or five times as much data as the Brits do, so it is a relationship from which we benefit. The problem with any intelligence system is ‘garbage in, garbage out’. If the Americans are told by the Uzbek SNB (the local, rebranded KGB) that an Al Qaeda cell is running in, say, the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, then that is reported as fact by the CIA. But Murray went to the bother of attending some of the regime’s show trials. At one, he hears an elderly farmer cry out, denying his testimony that his grandson had travelled to Afghanistan and had met Bin Laden:

”They tortured me!’ said the old man.

‘They tortured my grandson before my eyes. They beat his testicles and put electrodes on his body. They put a mask on him to stop breathing. They raped him with a bottle. Then they brought my granddaughter and said they would rape her. All the time they said ‘Osama Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’. We are poor farmers from Andijan. We are good Muslims, but what do we know of Osama Bin Laden?”

Game over. It was this trial, and a mountain of other compelling evidence that led Murray to question the fundamental propositions behind the War on Terror. Murray’s first broadside came in his speech to the Freedom House in 2002 when he corrected the American ambassador’s drivel and said: ‘Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy. The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election; and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking”.

Murray realised that secret intelligence from Uzbekistan ‘ fed to the CIA, and passed on to MI6 and then to him ‘ was based on torture. He put it succinctly in one telegram to Jack Straw: ‘We are selling our souls for dross.’

Murray was rewarded with total disgrace. He was charged with eighteen counts of gross professional misconduct, including having sold visas for sex, alcoholism, having used the flag car as a fun vehicle, blah, blah, blah. Back in Whitehall, Murray accused his Foreign Office superiors, Simon Butt and Linda Duffield, of doing their utmost to undermine his position with the torturers. Part of me has never been able to understand Appeasement, how the British Establishment could have bent so low. Having read Murray’s story, I can now. Even so, it is a shocking read, to see how often the Foreign Office twisted facts and invented half-truths to do Murray down. Fascinatingly, no one outside bought a word of it.

The lie factory in King Charles Street was almost universally disbelieved. Virtually the entire British business community in Uzbekistan had seen for themselves just how hard Murray had worked at understanding their problems. They’d seen, too, how the Uzbek leadership treated lickspittles with contempt, and how the moment Murray started standing up for the UK and human rights, the authorities had begun to treat the British with more respect. The business community ‘ from the tobacco company to the lowliest consultant ‘ sent Jack Straw fax after fax, setting him straight.

The hacks did Murray proud, too. Fleet Street’s finest rushed off to Uzbekistan and trawled the girly bars. Yes, the ambassador did some drinking. Yes, he had one woman, Nadira (who now lives with him). But all the other allegations were false. Instead, the hacks got the real story: that torture and repression were routine, and that Murray was in trouble for telling it straight. Some of the most fascinating bits of this book concern how Murray, the insider, used Foreign Office procedure against the FO itself.

But, in the end, he was forced out, and what Murray claims were the big lies ‘ for example, that the British government opposes torture in intelligence-gathering ‘ were able to settle down, no longer challenged from within. The latest twist in the story is that the Treasury’s solicitors have been on to Murray, and his publishers, calling on them to pull sensitive telegrams from his website. They may succeed, for a limited while.

But truth will out. Craig Murray is at pains ‘ sometimes absurdly so ‘to demonstrate that he is no hero. But that doesn’t stop him from being heroic, or his book from being a bloody good read.

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6 thoughts on “Selling our Souls: John Sweeney on Murder in Samarkand

  • kathz

    I read Murder in Samarkand on holiday and think everyone should read it. My copy has now reached its third reader.

  • Chuck Unsworth

    I'd guess Craig would be hoping for great numbers of purchasers, as well as readers……

  • Craig

    Well, both would be ideal! but if every copy was read five or six times, I would be delighted. I am sorry the book is expensive, but don't forget you can borrow it free from a library.

    The publisher has given it a publicity bidget of – literally – nil. In consequence it is hidden in the bowels of politics shelves rather than immediately visible in bookshops. So we need people consciously to work on "Word of mouth" to get the message out. And to blog about it…


  • Craig


    Thank you. I looked at your blogs. Strangely, I haven't see anyone else so far pick up and comment on the electoral malpractices in Blackburn, which I found so shocking.


  • Jean

    I encouraged a (wealthier) friend to buy the book and plan to borrow it. I posted the delightful Curmudgeon review on my blog (with the permission of the author), but my blog doesn't have very many readers, so I wouldn't expect it to boost sales too much.

    Craig, I'm an admirer of yours. This is my first comment, mostly because TypeKey doesn't seem to like me much and keeps throwing up barriers, but I've been reading your blog for some time, and you are in my pantheon of ex Foreign Service officers turned dissident critics of US/British foreign policy.

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