Drew Forrest reviews Murder in Samarkand, a rollicking autobiography laced with jokes, racy incident, political gossip and colourful travelogue
At one level a rollicking autobiography laced with jokes, racy incident, political gossip and colourful travelogue, Murder in Samarkand is also a kind of 21st century morality play.
British ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, Craig Murray is a philandering party animal who is finally ditched by his long-suffering wife when he falls for a beautiful Uzbek nightclub dancer. But exposure to the horrors of President Islam Karimov’s dictatorship, and growing disquiet over the appeasement policies of his Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) bosses, force to the surface an under’lying humanity and moral zeal. He evolves into what must be a rare bird in a morally elastic profession whose stock-in-trade is compromise — an activist.
The ambassador turned missionary emerges vividly in his brushes with the terrifying Uzbek secret police, the SNB. Delayed at one of the endless roadblocks en route to an opposition meeting, he hurls a policeman’s cellphone into the night and overturns a table on the stunned commander. Confronting cops who threaten to rape and kill a detainee — and who point a gun at him while making menacing clicking sounds — he gets up close and personal: ‘You are not going to kill anyone, you fucking little cunt! Now sit the fuck down and keep your mouth shut!’
Bear in mind that the uniformed thugs of the SNB were licensed for every enormity, including (in a globally reported case, which Murray exposed) boiling oppositionists alive. His Uzbek staffers delighted in these slap-downs, which he claims also earned him the government’s grudging respect. ‘The Uzbek people,’ says opposition leader Mohammad Salih, ‘have one word for Craig Murray: hero.’
The FCO mandarins were not so admiring: months of conflict climax in a disciplinary inquiry on apparently trumped-up charges, exclusion from his own embassy and the sack.
The villains of Murder in Samarkand are the loyal servants of the British and American governments — no doubt clean-living family men with spotless employment records — who bend over backwards to excuse Karimov and credit his lies. What really sticks in Murray’s craw is the Blair government’s willingness to accept Uzbek intelligence, which he knows — and tells the FCO, without result — has been extracted under torture.
Fingered as the main apologists are Murray’s line manager, Simon Butt, who accuses him of being ‘over-focused on human rights to the detriment of British interests’, and the United States ambassador, John Herbst. For these, the issue is the war on terror and Karimov’s wily self-projection as one of its ‘moderate’ Islamic friends.
Herbst is hugely impressed by the dictator’s pro-Israeli rhetoric. It is suggested that the thousands of Muslim prisoners of conscience held in Uzbek jails — some for having beards — have earned the regime brownie points and Western aid. At that stage, Uzbekistan also played host to one of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘lily-pads’ — giant airbases built to encircle the Islamic world.
The peculiar force of Murray’s revolt is that he cannot easily be dismissed as a malignant. A liberal opponent of terrorism and outspoken anti-communist, he had the vocal support of British business in Uzbekistan during his FCO showdown.
The Big Lie, he persuasively argues, was to spin Uzbek independence as a freedom-loving breakaway from the Soviet empire, rather than Karimov’s ploy to ringfence an enclave of the Soviet totalitarianism and extend the life of its bloodsucking elite.
Small wonder Murray scorns Blair’s New Labour as ‘all haircut and presentation’! How could the party of Keir Hardie, born of the British unions’ long fight for social justice, brown-nose such a regime?
The corrupting influence of the war on terror also underlies Labour’s assault on civil liberties at home, Murray argues. He points out that Blair’s bid to legalise the use of torture evidence — rejected by the Law Lords last year — was the first such move in two centuries.
And the towering irony is that appeasement failed. A year after Murray’s sacking, Uzbek troops mowed down 600 pro- democracy demonstrators at Andijan, sparking a wave of Pharisaical hand-wringing by the British government. Karimov’s response was to end the alliance and expel the US military.
Apart from the human rights dimension, Murray is surely right to argue that torture evidence is intrinsically unreliable, that praising fake reform will not encourage the real thing, and that indulging the brutality and misrule of the world’s Karimovs will fuel religious extremism and further discredit the West.
One expects nothing from the Americans, who have institutionalised torture at Guantanamo Bay and through ‘special rendition’. But it is hard to dispute Murray’s bitter complaint that Britain ‘has sold its soul for dross’.