Murder in Samarkand, by Craig Murray

Tashkent tales of terror and tippling

Anne Penketh
Friday 11 August 2006 00:00 BST

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The Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan has one of the world's most vicious regimes. President Islam Karimov, a Soviet-era survivor, would be right at the top of any league table of despots, along with Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kim Jong-Il of North Korea. Former UK ambassador Craig Murray, when he was Our Man in Tashkent, launched a one-man campaign to expose human-rights abuses in Uzbekistan. But his accusations that the Government was turning a blind eye to the use of torture brought him into conflict with support for the "war on terror", and he was forced to resign after a smear campaign encompassing both his private and professional life that destroyed his health and his marriage. In this book, Murray tells his side of the story.

If you have already formed an opinion about the poor judgement of the kilt-wearing, self-described "boozed-up, randy Scot", who left his long-suffering wife for an Uzbek dancer, the book will not change your mind. It is a shame, because Murray has a compelling tale about torture, skulduggery and bravery in the wilds of Uzbekistan. But the central theme risks being obscured by the revelations about his personal life. It is more Carry on up the Khyber than Murder in Samarkand.

A Foreign Office colleague is described as "the only man in the FCO who can drink me under the table": a boast illustrated during Murray's posting to Uzbekistan. On a typical evening's drinking with an Uzbek official, the pair down considerable quantities of Georgian red wine before they each consume the best part of a bottle of vodka with mutual toasts. They then drive to the nearest fleshpot - "in any Western country he would have been 10 times over the drink-driving limit" - where they continue the evening with beer and yet more vodka until 4am.

Murray describes well the horrors of the US-backed Karimov regime - the death by boiling, police rapes and forced labour in the cotton fields. To his credit, his decision to confront the Uzbek authorities gained him their respect and made him a hero to the NGOs. "I was trying to change a massively entrenched dictatorship by hurling myself against it. What was the point?" Simply "that it had to be done. Think William Wallace. On the other hand, when they tortured him to death they forced his own testicles down his throat."

This is indeed what happened to Murray, metaphorically speaking, as his diplomatic career was brought to an end. His witty and engaging narrative makes him look like the Candide of the cynical diplomatic world. In his fight against the system, the system won, despite his principled stand against New Labour's craven alignment with the Bush administration. But spare a thought for his superiors, bombarded by e-mails and telegrams. Murray was an ambassador behaving like a politician - even, at times, like the local head of Human Rights Watch. What prospects for British diplomacy if everybody behaves like a loose cannon, whatever the moral justification?

Murray realises that, by protesting about the uselessness of intelligence obtained under torture, he had inadvertently uncovered the basis of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programme. "That would explain the ferocity of the attacks aimed at removing me and destroying my reputation," he says. The sad epilogue is that, since his departure, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan has worsened still further. In a major geo-political shift, President Karimov has realigned his government with Moscow - a much less demanding partner in the field of human rights.

Anne Penketh is diplomatic editor of 'The Independent'

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