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Tuesday, July 25, 2006 

Book review: Murder in Samarkand by Craig Murray.

Craig Murray's memoir of his time in Uzbekistan is one of those books that ought to be required reading for anyone who supports the "war on terror" as it is being fought at the moment. David Cameron's shadow cabinet, now increasingly likely to form the next government, could learn a lot too.

Opening with Murray's account of attending the trial of Uzbek "dissidents", you instantly discover just what sort of a country Uzbekistan is. While the United States and British government during Murray's time in Tashkent praised President Karimov's liberalisation, both of the economy and on human rights issues, the reality is laid bare page after page. Murray's description of the trial is remarkable for its similarities to K's nightmare first appearance before the court in Kafka's The Trial. The judge makes jokes which he and his officials laugh at heartily, while ignoring the defenses case that is being put to him. This itself is just a taster of what it is to come in the rest of Murray's tale: the behaviour of Simon Butt, Murray's Head of Department is a reflection of the justice system. He ignores and is angered by Murray's attempts to show the despotic nature of Karimov's regime, instead only listening to the positive spin that the Uzbeks and Americans put on things. Butt is in that respect, New Labour to the core.

Murray quickly established himself in Tashkent, both as a principled man who would listen to anyone who came to him with tales of human rights abuses, but also as a great friend to the British business community, the few of which were/are located there. On arrival, he visited each - something which the previous ambassador had not bothered to do in his entire time there. The so-called liberalisation of the economy was not only not happening, the country was in fact going backwards. The borders were closed; bazaars had been shut down; projects which were meant to being set up were either mothballed or not even getting off the ground; and on a visit to Ferghana university he finds there are no students; they were all out in the fields, forced into picking the cotton crop. The economy depends on the crop, with sixty percent of the population serving as a tied labour force. As such, the workers are slaves - paid too little to be able to leave. In Soviet times 70% of the crop was harvested by machine; now it is 90% picked by hand.

The fact that the country was better off in Soviet times is another recurring theme. Murray himself argues with an Uzbek girl about this, only for him to discover that he's badly in the wrong. The universal literacy which the Soviet system had provided was collapsing, while the welfare state institutions had already done so. Rather than pursuing communism, the country is now in the way Russia appears to be heading towards: ruthless nationalism, crackdowns on any dissent, no freedom of religion, banning of NGOs and all are being carried out under the banner of protecting the country from Islamic extremists, as part of the worldwide "war on terror".

Murray was expected by the Foreign Office to be just another yes man who questioned nothing and abided by the New Labour line of supporting America in whatever circumstances arose. If the Americans think Uzbekistan is OK, then so must Britain. It was Murray's disquiet and refusal to accept this that resulted in the now notorious charges being brought against him. Starting with his speech at Freedom House, only cleared at the last minute by the Foreign Office, his outspoken attacks on the human rights situation led to him slowly but inexorably being discommunicated, with his telegrams and emails back to Britain being ignored. Simon Butt described his telegrams as having an "emotional style", as if you can somehow report on men being raped with glass bottles with a stoical aloofness from the horror which is being perpetuated around you.

Throughout the book, Murray describes the true nature of the Uzbek security services and police, our former allies in the war on terror who provided us with "intelligence" which the government has no qualms about using or relying on. Male or female, nearly everyone who is arrested is raped. Torture is endemic - whether it involves the arrested being put in TB wards in order to catch the disease, the use of gas masks which are then blocked off to suffocate the victim without the normal telltale signs, or even and most notoriously, being boiled alive, all was carried out with no criticism from London or Washington.

Finally, Murray, about to go off on holiday but visiting London for the day is told that his staff have been suspended pending investigations. He himself was also under investigation over numerous allegations, involving issuing visas for girlfriends, turning up for work late and drunk, and various other trumped up misdemeanors, all off which apart from a couple he is eventually cleared of, neither of which should have been disciplinary issues in the first place. Eventually allowed to return to Tashkent, despite suffering a mental breakdown, his career is only ended after he wrote a telegram damning the intelligence which the West received from Uzbekistan through torture. After the leaking of the telegram to the Financial Times and interviews in the Guardian and on the Today programme, Murray was suspended and eventually given a severance package.

So far then, so grim and so political. Yet the book is enlivened throughout by Murray's nature. While for Max Hastings, reviewing the book in the Sunday Times, this trivalises the serious subject matter, Murray's almost laddishness actually tells you far more about the man than his passion for freedom and human rights does. While there's no doubting that his relationships with Uzbek girls and visits to nightclubs and "strip bars", if they can be called that, resulted in the breakdown of his marriage, Murray is the first to admit that he behaved badly. In the circumstances however, ignored by his superiors and accused of bringing the embassy into disrepute, he took solace in what he liked best, like anyone else would. His behaviour is wholly understandable, if not defendable. Most of all, it shows him as a normal human being, something which cannot be said about the New Labour people who tried to bring him down. His indiscretions also pale into insignificance when compared to the womanising and sleaze of John Prescott, David Blunkett and Boris Johnson.

While Murray's book arrives too late for those of us who sadly voted for Labour with a heavy heart last year, it's the kind of angry shout against the futility of Western policy that is so badly and desperately needed. The end result of the West's appeasement of Karimov was the Andijan massacre, which earned the Uzbeks the mild rebuke that was the excuse for Karimov to return into the welcoming arms of Vladimir Putin. Kicked out of the airbase they had used to bomb Afghanistan, the whole experience should of told the Bush administration just how counter-productive their current strategy is. On the contrary, it continues to regard Middle East dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt as best friends, while snubbing its nose at the democratically elected Hamas and Lebanese governments, letting Israel reduce Gaza and Lebanon to rubble. Most shocking off all, a so-called Labour government has stood by and supported the US to the hilt. As Murray writes, something about September the 11th changed the psyche of those who beforehand had been promoting an ethical foreign policy, allowing them to justify the use of torture, the lies surrounding the war in Iraq, and the attacks on civil liberties in this country.

Murray doesn't want to be referred to or thought of as a hero. John Pilger however manages to come up with a fitting description without using the h word, printed as it is on the front cover: a man of the highest principle. How true, and how typical of this Labour government, that it conspired to remove an ambassador who told them what they didn't want to hear. Tony Blair came to office promising to be purer than pure. Next time the government suggests that it has nothing to do with extraordinary rendition, or that it abhors torture, throw Murder in Samarkand at them.

(There's an excellent interview and further review on Lenin's Tomb. Obsolete also hosts the documents that Murray was ordered to remove from his website, here.)

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