Tribune reviews “Murder in Samarkand”

Murder in Samarkand, Craig Murray. Mainstream, 400 pp, ‘18.99

Paul Routledge

“How can we have come to this,” asks Craig Murray, once Our Man in Tashkent, “that integrity in public life is now so rare that some consider me a hero just for exhibiting the most basic human decency?”

You only have to read this important, and courageous, book to understand why. If you are a public servant, and you speak out about the moral cesspit into which New Labour has jumped ‘ not fallen ‘ then you will be hounded from your job, blackguarded in the media and pursued by the avenging furies of the security services and their lawyers.

Craig Murray paid this price for revealing the British government’s role in the use of information gained by torture, which in turn led to the expose of the USA’s “extraordinary rendition” flights” and infuriated Washington. He simply had to go, and once gone, further and better punished to discourage the rest.

It is amazing that this book ever appeared. The government’s censors have had a field day, cutting out damning details on pain of crippling litigation against the publisher. And Whitehall’s finest lawyers were wheeled out to threaten the author with breach of copyright if he disclosed sensitive diplomatic telegrams. But the great virtue about this awkward Scot, who looks like a bemused schoolteacher down on his luck, is that you cannot shut him up.

Murder in Samarkand is the result : a bludgeon by bludgeon account of the barbaric regime of President Karimov in Uzbekistan, and a Labour government’s complicity in his rule. Murray, a career diplomat with postings in Warsaw and west Africa behind him, was appointed Britain’s youngest ambassador in Tashkent in 2002 at the age of 43. He was Norfolk grammar school and Dundee University, rather than Eton and Oxbridge, and Liberal rather than service-orientated Conservative or career Labour. In retrospect, he looked like trouble from the beginning. Except that he did his job so well.

Murray found Tashkent a diplomatic quiet zone, with embassies unable, or unwilling, to influence Karimov’s corrupt, reborn-Communist government. His first act was to attend a dissident’s trial, where three hours of observing perversion of justice set him on his own course of dissent. He fired off a telegram to London condemning the regime that was Blair’s ally in the “war on terror” and demanding an EU protest. Within days, opponents of the regime were knocking at his door with horrific fresh evidence, including photographs of a man who had been boiled alive. The American ambassador cautioned him, claiming that the boiling man was “an isolated case.”

Contrarily, Murray upped the tempo with a public speech condemning the Uzbek regime’s human rights record, and a stream of telegrams disclosing “systemic” torture. His FCO managers were not amused, warning him that he was behaving like a politician, not a diplomat. Worse was to come. Murray, who was reading the MI6 material, denounced as hopelessly wrong information “from a friendly security service” gleaned from “detainee briefing.” He was sure this stuff was “hot out of the torture chambers.” But for Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the head of MI6, the material was “operationally useful”, even if they both (allegedly) lost sleep over its use.

Thereon, it was downhill all the way. The story of the FCO’s persecution of Murray is told in relentless detail. He was accused of being unpatriotic, drunk on duty, unduly fond of the local women, and a host of other undiplomatic habits. He was certainly na’ve, and enjoyed the social round, such as it was in Tashkent. Murray enlivened it with Gilbert and Sullivan, a Scottish rock band and fireworks. Recalled for interview to London, he almost died from a pulmonary embolism and was probably unwise to return to his post while the campaign to destroy him reached a climax at home. He was banned from his own office, a policy specifically supported by Straw. Eventually, practically all the charges against him were dropped, except for the heinous crime of talking about them. But they sacked him all the same, ending his “experiment in a more dynamic style of ambassadorship.”

His real crime, of course, was unwitting subversion of the longstanding US-UK intelligence sharing agreement, under which everything is swapped between the CIA and MI6. Since the American spook industry is four times bigger than ours, this is an unequal swap, and part of the bargain has to be British acceptance of information wherever it comes from. If it comes from torture, “we have to accept it in order to maintain the integrity of the agreement,” Murray emphasises..

That is the nub of the issue, and he is disarmingly frank about stating it. From a simple protest against political corruption, Murray was drawn ineluctably into a power game that could only have one ending. Within days of his controversial Tashkent speech, a top US diplomat in Uzbekistan told a visiting Danish journalist “Murray is a finished man here.”

But happily, not here at home. Murder in Samarkand is not just a harrowing, dramatic story, occasionally relieved by an impish sense of humour. It is a clarion call to all those who care about justice and human rights. No wonder they wanted to shut him up, and thank heaven they failed.