Monday, September 03, 2007

Book Review: Murder in Samarkand

REVIEWS: Diplomatic Immunity
Reviewed by S.G. Jilanee: Dawn, September 2, 2007
Murder in Samarkand: A British Ambassador's Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror By Craig Murray

When Craig Murray took up his appointment as British ambassador to Uzbekistan, he was as full of verve as joie de vivre. The first came from the realisation that this was his first assignment as head of mission after about 20 years in the Foreign Service in the fabled land of Tamurlane. And the other from his youthful years as he was only 44.

He had served so far in Africa and Europe, which were comparatively tame affairs not only due to their location but also because he was number two. This was his chance, then, to prove his worth. But he responded to the challenges with almost reckless élan; doing things no ambassador, not even of the US variety, had ever attempted in Uzbekistan. So his first ambassadorial stint proved also to be his last.

Almost immediately on setting foot on the Uzbek soil, he noticed there was much that cried out for action. He saw and heard things he had never seen or heard anywhere before. He was treated for the first time to a truly kangaroo court. He saw pictures of people boiled live, heard stories of how the state used rape and sodomy as a weapon to gag dissent and destroyed evidence after murdering a dissident. He found that criminal cases resulted in 100 per cent conviction.

He frequently came across stories of arrests; 7,000 to 10,000 people in jail, pervasive torture, killings and persecution of not only political dissidents but also Tajiks and Muslims, especially Hizb-ut-Tahrir elements.

Something inside him revolted at this, and he started to pursue cases of human rights violations in right earnest. After he had watched a sham trial in which the judge sentenced all the defendants without any evidence, he was appalled and reported it to the foreign office where the human rights policy department in the foreign office agreed to have the case pursued.

This encouraged him further. Murray, therefore, started to talk openly about principles, values and ethics, things that his diplomatic colleagues scrupulously avoided mention. He found that the Uzbek authorities gained intelligence for CIA through sheer torture, which it ultimately passed on to MI5 and MI6, which he believed was not only in contravention of the Geneva Convention but the material so obtained was just ‘crap’. And he told this to his superiors in clear terms.

At every forum he rubbished Uzbek government’s claims about ‘reforms’ and exposed the lies in their statistics. At the same time he made it a point to meet dissidents to their utter chagrin and pursue cases of human rights violations, confronting Uzbek authorities with hard evidence.

Finally, he summed all this up in his speech at the Freedom House, in which he tore the mask off the horrid face of the Karimov government. Although he had got the speech cleared by the foreign office, yet it had enough of punch to be called the ‘diplomatic equivalent of a salvo’. The speech caused a sensation.

Murray had already won the hearts and minds of the British community in Tashkent by effectively promoting their business interests. Now he had also become a source of hope and succour to the persecuted people of Uzbekistan.

But while his speeches and actions made him a hero locally, they made him a villain in the eyes of his superiors from his line manager, Simon Butt to Jack Straw.

His crusade for human rights threatened to sour relations between London and Tashkent. So he began to receive stinkers. Simon Butt humiliated him once by praising Uzbek government’s achievements before its foreign minister in the author’s presence. His activities were even called unpatriotic; his protest that his loyalty was to the Queen, not to George Bush was ignored.

On another occasion a very senior officer in the foreign office, Linda Duffield, told him plainly, ‘You are a civil servant, and I don’t have to remind you that you act on behalf of the secretary of state and in accordance with policy set by ministers.’ Complaints against Murray were pouring in from the United States as well. But he seemed to enjoy walking on his detractors’ corns with spiked heels and total sang froid. He even forwarded copies of his telegrams to the foreign office on human rights violations and torture to all his colleagues.

Such defiance is unacceptable in any institution. That he could stay on so long was because he was an employee. Clare Short, a minister, had to go the next day after she criticised Karimov during her visit to Tashkent.

But there are decent ways to get rid of an unwanted employee. Instead Murray’s bosses tried to bully him into resigning. When he refused to oblige, he was charge-sheeted and investigated. But no case of gross misconduct could be proved against him. He was mistreated. Unable to bend him the FO at last agreed to pay him £327,000 in return for accepting an honourable discharge.

Murder in Samarkand is a memoir but reads like a horror novel. There are bodies galore: boiled bodies, bodies with brains oozing out from the tell-tale hole at the back of the skull, body of Prof Mirsaidov’s young grandson thrown at his doorstep as punishment for arranging a meeting between Murray and Tajik dissidents at his house and wanton massacre of 600 out of 20,000 protesters in Andijan.

There is also a fairly strong dose of romance as Murray, a habitual Lothario, falls in love with an Uzbek beauty, Nadira, and settles down with her while his wife, Fiona, takes a divorce and their children.

The foreign office has censored the more ‘unsavoury’ portions of his narrative, yet there is still enough to damn it as a bunch of crooks and blackguards with no moral compass and hold the reader in thrall. No less thought-provoking is his question at the end of the book, ‘How have we come to this, that integrity in public life is now so rare that some consider me a hero just for exhibiting the most basic human decency?’

Ambassador Craig Murray's Website:

No comments: