Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Murder in Samarkand: A British Ambassador’s controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror

By Craig Murray.

The author Craig Murray is widely acclaimed as one of the few establishment figures who has emerged as a person of principle in modern times. Murray narrates the grim and sometimes horrific story with aplomb and a sense of humour that does not betray the serious topic of human rights addressed in the book. In fact, a sense of humour must have been an important part of the author’s armoury when he was dealing with crimes of barely imaginable horror.

The workings of the foreign office and embassies in other countries are not subjects that immediately excite the imagination. However, the book outlines a fascinating picture both of the political machinations that keep the diplomatic staff in line with government policies and also the routine work that goes on behind the scene, without overdosing on the boring detail. Murray to his credit is very frank about both his feelings and his personal life and this makes for a fascinating thread throughout the story. He admits to human failings and indiscretions in an honest way, which even the most critical reader, cannot help but admire. His concern for human rights and incredulity at the way the ‘system’ colludes with torturers and murderers, is evident throughout, and a sign of genuine compassion that one rarely expects in serving diplomats.

Interwoven with this grim story of repression, are anecdotes of meals, conversations, and observations on the figures of various girls who catch the roving eye of the author. Frankness and honesty can be refreshing qualities in government officials, but they are rarely seen in these quantities. This extends even to discussions on monthly earnings as an ambassador and financial problems.

Despite his background and training, Murray frequently comes across as confrontational and undiplomatic, at times even confronting armed thugs physically. Clearly the revulsion at state-sponsored torture had a profound effect on his behaviour and thinking. Murray backs up his story with valuable documents (mostly available on-line) which the Foreign Office fought tooth and nail to suppress, probably because they are damning evidence of the rotten core of New Labour. The double standards of politicians like Blair and Straw are obvious to most, but this book gives a valuable insiders view. It corroborates all the evidence from other whistleblowers who have described the treachery and spin that characterised the years of the Blair reshime.

His meetings with Karimov the Uzbek President and other Uzbek officials expose the hypocritical and loathsome qualities of US and UK foreign policies. The hidden subtext of conversations is well explained by Murray as he relates the double-speak that is copious in diplomatic conversation. Throughout the book, political, cultural and geographical details emerge on Uzbekistan that educate, alarm, and amuse the reader, in equal measure.

Given his undoubted commitment to economic liberalisation and capitalism, Murray has become a rather surprising hero for the left, which condemns the excesses of capitalism and free enterprise that Murray promotes. However, in the context of Uzbekistan, where the soviet style economy is maintained by nothing less than slavery in the cotton fields and factories, his calls for liberalisation do not seem out of place. The fact that the USA and UK godfathers of the market economy actually claimed that Uzbekistan’s economy was making progress, despite massive evidence to the contrary, is superficially surprising but these topsy-turvy facts don’t seem to be out of place with the prevailing cynical outlook of contemporary government.

The main criticism of the book is that some of the characters appear one-dimensional and their persona does not come across to the reader. One example is Chris Hirst, who is the first character to be introduced, but remains a bit of mystery other than some ‘disciplinary problems’ and the allegations (probably politically motivated) made against him by the Uzbeks. In contrast, the pretty girl characters are predictably better fleshed out (no pun intended) and add a touch of colour to the story, contrasting with grey harsh mood of repression described. None of this detracts from the quality of the writing and at times the story assumes the engaging quality of a relentless page-turner.

The narrative heads towards a somewhat predictable conclusion given the outspoken nature of the ambassador, the stuffy FO officials charged with gagging Murray, the totalitarian system that prevails in Uzbekistan, and the US efforts to keep Karimov sweet. Very predictably the smears start flying against Murray, with accusations of sexual misdemeanours and other untoward activities. Various dastardly but obvious and clumsy attempts follow, to try and stitch up the outspoken ambassador.

I was very interested in the Blackburn election and to learn what motivated Murray to take on Jack Straw for this multi-cultural seat. However, I was rather disappointed because this section is brief and seems to have been added as an afterthought, because it pops up rather unexpectedly whilst failing to go into the juicy details. It would have made for a fascinating chapter by itself, but perhaps he is reserving this for another book. If that is the case, he would have been better off leaving out this couple of pages. What he does write on the subject, highlights his political naivety in thinking he could outflank a wily politician like Straw and his army of ‘community leader’ acolytes.

To his immense credit, Murray comes across as a likable man committed to values of humanity and justice, battling those who only use these terms for decorating their speeches. This ambassador has done society a great service by exposing vile torture and murder, and rejecting them on our behalf.

The good news is that despite the health problems described in the book, he is still around and providing an expert commentary on current political events on his popular blog. I have no hesitation in recommending this book as an essential and entertaining read.


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