Strife in Samarkand

A review of Murder in Samarkand by Iain Elliot in Times Literary Supplement

Craig Murray, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004, has written a riveting account of that period which both amuses and horrifies. It is not difficult to understand why the Foreign Office wished to sack him. His unsuitability did not really stem from the fact that the FCO mandarins are still disproportionately drawn from the Eton and Oxbridge intake, while Murray was educated in a state school and at Dundee University. Nor was it because he preferred to wear his own suit ‘ or indeed his kilt ‘ rather than hire morning dress at the taxpayers’ expense for the routine ambassadorial call on Buckingham Palace. There are Scots in all sorts of high posts, and as for petty matters such as dress codes, the FCO is much less hidebound than it once was.

Of course Murray’s lifestyle was scarcely conventional. He confesses to enjoying years of ‘wonderful, madcap booze-fuelled evenings out, full of wit and wrongdoing, and a string of mistresses’. But when his long-suffering wife Fiona, the mother of his two children, demands that he give up his ‘floozy’ Nadira (an Uzbek girl half his age whom he met in a Tashkent nightclub, and who takes her Walkman to dinner parties), he finally recognizes her unhappiness, but fails to abandon Nadira. When appointing a new secretary he shortlists a dozen candidates but admits: ‘The moment the first candidate walked in the door, she had the job. She had the most extraordinary classical beauty, a perfect face framed by long blond hair’. But the beautiful Kristina lets him down, mangling the guest list for an important Embassy dinner, and making nonsense of a diplomatic note she translates by omitting a crucial ‘not’.

Yet Murray is not the only ambassador to have strayed from his marriage vows. More seriously for the FCO, he seems to have been too outspoken and honest, about his own shortcomings as well as those of the government to which he was accredited, to do his job properly ‘ even if it is not strictly true that the first qualification for a diplomat is to be able to lie for his country. In Tamerlane’s Children, a perceptive book about contemporary Uzbekistan, the journalist Robert Rand prints a conversation with Murray, asking him at one point, ‘How do you cure Uzbekistan?’. Murray replies, ‘I think you’ve got to just get rid of the present leadership entirely. Lock, stock, and barrel’.

This may well have been the case, but it is certainly a rash remark to make to a journalist, certain to cause offence to the host regime and capable of being exploited by the Soviet-style regime should its officials wish to allege links with violent forces of opposition. Although Islamic extremists were officially blamed for bombings in Tashkent, some observers believe that these were actually carried out by government security agents, to justify measures against the religious revival and to further Uzbekistan’s membership of the coalition against terror. President Islam Karimov was First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party until the collapse of the USSR, when, Murray argues, he opted for national independence to maintain the Soviet system rather than to destroy it. Since then he has stayed in power, helped by a clan system, brutal police repression, and elections condemned by the world’s monitoring bodies as neither free nor fair.

Soon after he arrived in Tashkent, Murray attended the trial of dissidents on what were clearly trumped-up charges, backed by confessions extracted by torture. He resolved not ‘to go along with political lies or leave the truth unspoken’, but to give active support to those speaking out in defence of human rights. In this respect he differed from his fellow European ambassadors and the United States’ ambassador, John Herbst, who played a more passive role. Murray spoke publicly in condemnation of Karimov’s political and economic record, and sent frank telegrams back to London, distributing them more widely than the FCO Eastern Department considered advisable. On one occasion, when he pushed through police barriers to attend a meeting of opposition parties in Kokhand his car narrowly avoided being rammed by security police. He took Simon Butt,the visiting head of the Eastern Department, to meet dissidents in Samarkand. The next morning their host, a Professor Mirsaidov, found the body of his eighteen-year-old grandson, Avazov, dumped in the street outside his home.

Murray was given photographs, taken by the boy’s mother, of the corpse of Avazov, a member of an Islamic liberation party who had been imprisoned in the Jaslyk gulag. Pathologists at Glasgow University examined the photos and concluded that Avazov had been severely beaten before being killed by immersion in boiling liquid. According to Human Rights Watch and other respected international bodies, some 7,000 Uzbeks are held prisoner for political and religious beliefs. Nor is Karimov’s record better in other areas. The media are tightly controlled, and official statistics totally unreliable. Yet international bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank were prepared to support the regime on the basis of these flawed figures, despite evidence of corruption and embezzlement by the Karimov family and other ruling clans and the direct experience of Western firms defrauded by the authorities. The population of some 26 million is enslaved by the cotton monoculture (with its miserable wages and a workforce of children and students taken from their studies to help with the harvest), while the irresponsible use of irrigation canals and chemicals have caused the ecological disaster of the dying Aral Sea. Only the clan leaders have drawn any profit.

Murray is convinced that his difficulties with the Foreign Office stemmed from the American perception of Karimov as a valuable ally in the war against terror, which required turning a blind eye to his use of terror against his own population. In return for economic and political support, the USA was granted the use of the Karshi Khanabad airbase for operations in Afghanistan. The ‘correct’ line was therefore to encourage Karimov to improve his record on human rights while praising anything which could possibly be interpreted as a reform. Moreover, the Ambassador found it unacceptable that Britain should receive information extracted by torture in Uzbekistan, even indirectly through the CIA. We were ‘selling our souls for dross’ ‘ and violating the UN Convention on Torture. Not so, said an FCO memo, while admitting that such information would be inadmissible as evidence in a court of law.

Naturally enough, the Foreign Office decided that an ambassador who was offensive to both Jack Straw in London and Karimov in Tashkent was no longer effective; but Murray, who had earned the support of the British business community in Uzbekistan and become a hero to Uzbek dissidents, was difficult to remove, and he defended himself vigorously. Of the twenty or so allegations that were were drawn against him, seventeen were dismissed as groundless, and the others judged insufficient to warrant dismissal. But his days in Tashkent were numbered. The end of his career ‘ and of his marriage ‘ put him under huge stress. He suffered a mental breakdown and serious illness, but recovered sufficiently to stand as an independent candidate in the general election against Jack Straw, winning over 2,000 votes despite what he presents as unfair practices by his Labour opponents. A substantial severance payment was agreed with the Foreign Office, but the parting was not on amicable terms.

‘Some of the symptoms of tyranny’, writes Murray, ‘are the use of torture, imprisonment without trial, government figures being above the law and censorship of books.’ He wished to include some of the documentation relating to his disagreements with the FCO in this memoir, but was threatened with expensive court cases, so put them on his website instead ( marking gaps: ‘censored by the British government’. The Treasury Solicitors then wrote to him claiming that the copyright in the documents subsists with the Crown and threatening him with substantial costs in legal actions. He removed them, but they can still be found elsewhere on the web.

Robert Rand’s brief but valuable Tamerlane’s Children begins with dispatches from his time in Uzbekistan (August 2001 to November 2004), including pen portraits which give fascinating insights into contemporary life there. Part Two contains sharp political analysis, drawing on observations and interviews such as that with Craig Murray mentioned above. Rand ends with an account of the mass shootings in Andijon in May 2005 for which the Karimov regime was widely condemned, even in official Washington. In July, Karimov ordered the eviction of the US from the Uzbek airbase and strengthened his relations with China and Russia, with whose leaderships he evidently feels more comfortable. The shared message of these books is that while alliances are often temporary, the need to defend human rights is not.