Craig Murray, formerly Our Man in Tashkent, was not your average ambassador. He put the wind up the Uzbeks with his uncompromising position on President Islam Karimov’s unspeakably grisly human rights record. This is the country that infamously boiled a dissident to death and then sentenced his mother to six years of hard labour when she had the temerity to complain about it. It is thanks to Murray’s efforts that the case was publicly aired in the first place and that the unfortunate mother’s sentence was subsequently commuted to a fine.
Upsetting Uzbekistan is one thing. The problem was that all this business was going on from 2002-4, when Washington, historically a little careless about choosing its friends around the world, was cosying up to one of its nastiest regimes. Karimov was a new-found ally in President Bush’s war on terror, providing an important airbase from which the Taleban regime in Afghanistan was defeated. Washington wasn’t happy about Britain’s man in Uzbekistan ruffling feathers. So he had to go. Britain, having mislaid its independent foreign policy, shamefully did America’s bidding.
What was so damaging about Murray’s speech in Tashkent on 17 October 2002? In it he observed, ‘Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy.’ He described how major political parties were banned, voiced his concern over an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 political/religious prisoners, reminded his audience of the dissident-boiling case and the general prevalence of torture in Uzbek prisons, and urged the authorities to halt the repression and start opening up. It was only embarrassing to Washington in so far as it highlighted the uncomfortable direction post-9/11 realpolitik was taking.
Murray’s subsequent (internal) revelation that MI6 was using intelligence obtained through torture from Uzbek intelligence services via the CIA convinced his Whitehall masters to show him the door. It is worth noting that in December 2005 the Law Lords ruled that secret evidence that might have been obtained by torture was inadmissible in UK courts.
Murray was widely regarded as a hard worker who burnt the candle at both ends. He doesn’t hide his love of drinking and women here, forever describing the figures of those he meets. One group of office workers displays ‘a terrific amount of cleavage’; another girl has ‘the most wonderful neat bum’.
We don’t know he is definitely married until page 165 (perhaps the greatest unwitting, though highly revealing, insult to his wife) when he confesses it to a woman he has just set eyes on in a lap-dancing club. He is instantly smitten by Nadira, who is wearing ‘matching embroidered purple knickers and bra’:
As I caught her glance, I felt she was drawing me into her very soul. Her lips shone with a liquid gloss, and they were parted in a way that was both sexy and innocent… She defied the impossible by exuding, at the same time, such ripe sexual attraction and such innocent vulnerability. Her body invited sex while her eyes screamed, ‘Save me.’
Indeed, spare us such ambassadorial confessions of a lap-dancing aficionado. If they have to be included, you just wish they were more Nabokov than Jackie Collins. It is a shame that sex becomes a distraction in what is otherwise an important and well-told story from a frontline on the war on terror. Be that as it may, Murray stoops to conquer, though not before discovering Nadira has enthusiastically been performing oral sex on an American GI. Later, she suffers anal rape at the hands of an Uzbek policeman. Rape by the authorities is a common practice in Uzbekistan.
Few emerge with much credit from Murray’s stinging account. He is amusingly unimpressed by New Labour ministers whom he considers ‘all haircut and presentation’. The Foreign Office he describes is a pettily procedural bully, spineless in the face of American pressure and Uzbek brutality. The way it compiles its case against him, ignoring any evidence that doesn’t fit its premeditated verdict, is unappetising. It is a measure of how the war on terror has perverted diplomacy and thoroughly corrupted our democracies that Washington and London, together with their diplomats and spies, should get into bed with the thugs in Tashkent. Murray was a loose cannon, certainly, but a principled one in the boardroom, if not the bedroom.
Some readers might be a little put off by the ringing endorsement on the jacket. Praise from John Pilger is a dubious gift. Fortunately, the exiled Uzbek opposition leader Mohammed Salih provides more credible positive testimony. As for Jack Straw’s comment that ‘Craig Murray has been a deep embarrassment to the entire Foreign Office’, what — sexual shenanigans aside — could be more persuasive evidence that the former ambassador was a very good thing indeed?
Justin Marozzi is writing a travel history of Herodotus for John Murray.