The FO KO 1

David Leigh on Craig Murray’s extraordinary account of his period as envoy to Uzbekistan, Murder in Samarkand

From The Guardian

There is plenty of black comedy in this frank story of the disillusionment and downfall of one of Britain’s brightest young ambassadors. It is presumably that element which has already attracted director Michael Winterbottom to his project of making it into a feature film with Steve Coogan in the title role.

Craig Murray clearly had little idea of what he was letting himself in for four years ago, when he set off with a pile of baggage on a first-class flight, as envoy to the faraway country of Uzbekistan. A bit of a bon vivant and a womaniser, he was also clever and industrious, and he knew it. One of a new unstuffy breed in the Foreign Office, from Dundee University rather than Oxford, he says he protested at being told to wear a grey tailcoat and topper for a duty call on the royals before departure. He was informed the dress code was sternly insisted on by the Palace, since an ambassador had recently committed the solecism of arriving in a linen suit. “Good God! A linen suit?” writes Murray cockily. “No wonder we lost the Empire!”

But when he got to Tashkent, Murray’s cockiness started to evaporate. As he describes it, he found himself in a milieu worthy of Graham Greene. The Americans were busy building an enormous airbase, and praising the sinister President Karimov to the skies as a reformist ally in the great war on terror. Karimov himself was exploiting US naivety while running an Asiatic tyranny on a North Korean model, with internal passports, virtual slave labour, and brutal torture of Muslim dissidents. The Americans were kept happy by a supply of colourful “intelligence” about al-Qaida activities, most of which, says Murray, was nonsense.

The new ambassador decided to attend a show trial. It was an eye-opener. He was at first intrigued by an encounter with an Uzbek lovely, and then became very ashamed of himself. “I realised this was the sister of the victim. Her eyes were filling with tears. Her brother was going to be executed and I was trying to make out her legs through her dress. I was filled with self-loathing.” He felt even more ashamed when he found his local girlfriends were resigned to being regularly raped by the thuggish Tashkent police.

Murray set about doing what he thought was the right thing. He decribes how he sent telegrams to London demanding diplomatic action. He confronted corrupt Uzbek officials. He made a dramatic public speech in front of a stony-faced US ambassador, contradicting bland American praise of the regime and becoming a local hero.

But, as he tells the story, there was just too much that Murray did not realise at the time. He did not know that Tony Blair and the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, had hitched Britain irrevocably to the White House wagon. He did not know that with the coming invasion of Iraq, any dissent from the architecture of lies used to justify it would be depicted as “unpatriotic”. He did not know that the CIA had a secret policy of “rendition” which was not merely condoning torture, but was deliberately exploiting it. And it is clear from his account that he did not realise his unhappy marriage and penchant for long-legged pole-dancers were capable of blowing up in his face.

Murray says he was briefed against by the Americans, who had the ear of No 10, and undermined by his own superiors in London. An initial attempt was made to force him to resign with false charges of alcoholism and corruption. The internal memos about this which Murray eventually obtained are quite disgusting to read, even in the heavily censored form allowed by HMG’s lawyers.

Murray temporarily collapsed under the strain, and it is not inconceivable from the evidence here that his Uzbek enemies made an attempt to poison him. He seems to have fought bravely, rescued his reputation and eventually forced the FO to pay him off, which financed his divorce. Murray does demonstrate that the men of straw have failed to silence him, for which he deserves much praise. But he has none the less been successfully defenestrated. He is now living with the young Uzbek beauty whom he fell for, and is reduced to a flat in west London. Those he took on – Karimov, Bush and Blair – remain in power.

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