Tashkent tales of terror and tippling 2

Rather snooty review from the Indpendent’s diplomatic editor, who I feel may have been writing with an eye to preserving her FCO contacts. Incidentally, I think “Carry on up the Khyber” is a great film.


From The Independent

By Anne Penketh

Published: 11 August 2006

The Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan has one of the world’s most vicious regimes. President Islam Karimov, a Soviet-era survivor, would be right at the top of any league table of despots, along with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea. Former UK ambassador Craig Murray, when he was Our Man in Tashkent, launched a one-man campaign to expose human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan. But his accusations that the Government was turning a blind eye to the use of torture brought him into conflict with support for the “war on terror”, and he was forced to resign after a smear campaign encompassing both his private and professional life that destroyed his health and his marriage. In this book, Murray tells his side of the story.

If you have already formed an opinion about the poor judgement of the kilt-wearing, self-described “boozed-up, randy Scot”, who left his long-suffering wife for an Uzbek dancer, the book will not change your mind. It is a shame, because Murray has a compelling tale about torture, skulduggery and bravery in the wilds of Uzbekistan. But the central theme risks being obscured by the revelations about his personal life. It is more Carry on up the Khyber than Murder in Samarkand.

A Foreign Office colleague is described as “the only man in the FCO who can drink me under the table”: a boast illustrated during Murray’s posting to Uzbekistan. On a typical evening’s drinking with an Uzbek official, the pair down considerable quantities of Georgian red wine before they each consume the best part of a bottle of vodka with mutual toasts. They then drive to the nearest fleshpot – “in any Western country he would have been 10 times over the drink-driving limit” – where they continue the evening with beer and yet more vodka until 4am.

Murray describes well the horrors of the US-backed Karimov regime – the death by boiling, police rapes and forced labour in the cotton fields. To his credit, his decision to confront the Uzbek authorities gained him their respect and made him a hero to the NGOs. “I was trying to change a massively entrenched dictatorship by hurling myself against it. What was the point?” Simply “that it had to be done. Think William Wallace. On the other hand, when they tortured him to death they forced his own testicles down his throat.”

This is indeed what happened to Murray, metaphorically speaking, as his diplomatic career was brought to an end. His witty and engaging narrative makes him look like the Candide of the cynical diplomatic world. In his fight against the system, the system won, despite his principled stand against New Labour’s craven alignment with the Bush administration. But spare a thought for his superiors, bombarded by e-mails and telegrams. Murray was an ambassador behaving like a politician – even, at times, like the local head of Human Rights Watch. What prospects for British diplomacy if everybody behaves like a loose cannon, whatever the moral justification?

Murray realises that, by protesting about the uselessness of intelligence obtained under torture, he had inadvertently uncovered the basis of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme. “That would explain the ferocity of the attacks aimed at removing me and destroying my reputation,” he says. The sad epilogue is that, since his departure, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan has worsened still further. In a major geo-political shift, President Karimov has realigned his government with Moscow – a much less demanding partner in the field of human rights.

Anne Penketh is diplomatic editor of ‘The Independent’

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2 thoughts on “Tashkent tales of terror and tippling

  • disillusionment

    The last two paragraphs of Penketh's review are astounding.

    Re: the penultimate paragraph: So, Ms Penketh, one shouldn't defend human rights or pursue humanist moral concerns because that is not how British diplomacy is done! You are clearly evil, Craig. You've seriously compromised the conventional procedures of British diplomacy in the misguided attempt to save the lives of some innocent people. You bounder; You absolute scoundrel. Imagine the problems you'd have caused for the colonial government in (say) late 19th century Australia, flouting diplomatic convention left, right and centre owing to your clearly misguided and naive views that innocent human beings shouldn't be treated as of much lesser worth (i.e. as sub-human) because of their religion, culture, the colour of their skin or merely because they are expendable when it comes to the pursuit of some 'higher' objective.

    Re: the last paragraph: Anne Penketh conludes: "In a major geo-political shift, President Karimov has realigned his government with Moscow – a much less demanding partner in the field of human rights." Now, one does not have to downplay Moscow's disgraceful record on human rights to find this claim of Ms Penketh's more than a little problematic. I know of few measures upon which one might champion Britain and the US as significantly superior to Russia when it comes to the protection of human rights. Actually, sorry, there is one measure; that is taking without question the rhetoric of the British government on this issue. Ms Penketh is one of the vast majority in the British media enthusiastically doing this.

    But this is, ultimately, beside the point. Ms Penketh's concluding sentence is a textbook example of the fallacy of distraction. Regarding British policy in Uzbekistan (about which she and Craig Murray are writing)consider: British government policy actively promoted human rights abuses of the worst kind. Whatever Moscow's track-record and their future support for the crimes of the Uzbek regime this does NOTHING to change Britain's active encouragement of torture and deep-seated complicity in the crimes perpetrated by the Uzbek regime, against which Craig Murray fought. To reiterate: Russia's track record on human rights and any future influence they might exercise on abuses committed is simply irrelevant when one is forming a view on the immorality of British government policy and it is simply irrelevant to the question of the British government's culpability on this issue.

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