"I‘m in pains to say I‘m really not an heroic person", Craig Murray explains as I take a seat in the book-laden living room of his West London flat. However, despite his protestations, by speaking out against the US-UK support for the Uzbekistan Government when he was British Ambassador there from 2002-4, Murray is very much a heroic figure to many people, not least dissidents in Uzbekistan itself.
Having joined the Civil Service in 1984, the now 49-year old Murray rose rapidly through the ranks of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with a number of overseas postings in Africa and Europe, before being appointed the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2002. Before his posting to the Central Asian Republic he attended a series of briefings at the FCO. "The first thing to say is that human rights featured virtually not at all", Murray says. Instead, "there were two main concerns. The first was oil and gas and the second was the ‘war on terror‘."
In particular he was told it was essential to maintain a good relationship with Uzbekistan as they had granted the US an airbase in the south of the country in Karshi Khanabad. Citing official Pentagon documents, Murray explains this airbase was part of the US ‘lily pad system‘ – a network of American-allied airbases surrounding the wider Middle East, "which is, purely coincidentally, the world‘s largest oil and gas belt". With bases in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Diego Garcia, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Cyprus, Murray argues the American military is able to project force very quickly to protect their interests in the area.
Arriving in Tashkent, Uzbekistan‘s capital, Murray was soon made aware of the dire state of human rights in the country, when gruesome evidence of prisoners being boiled to death was brought to his attention. "It had actually got much worse since Soviet times", he says. "The media was 100 per cent state controlled. There are no opposition parties allowed, no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, definitely no freedom of religion. The people lived in a state of palpable fear."
According to Murray, in 2002, purportedly to resist the growth of militant Islam, the US "gave the Uzbeks over $500 million of aid, of which $120 million went straight to the Uzbek armed forces and $80 million went to the Uzbek security services, who probably have the worst reputation in the whole world for torture." Furthermore Murray contends Uzbekistan was being used as an extraordinary rendition destination, with the CIA "actually embedded" in the Uzbek security services.
If all this wasn‘t bad enough, Murray then began to receive British intelligence reports which included material from the Uzbek security services, probably obtained through torture. He was soon writing to his superiors in London arguing we should not be getting our intelligence through these channels, "on legal, practical and moral grounds". Incredibly his line manager replied criticising him for being "over-focussed on human rights".
With Britain‘s de facto role "to effectively be sidekicks to the Americans, and support them in deflecting international criticism of the Uzbek regime" a speech Murray made in October 2002 criticising the Uzbek Government proved particularly controversial. According to a Senior FCO source quoted in the Guardian at the time, for going ‘off message‘ Murray was soon on the receiving end of a "campaign of systematic undermining" partly "exercised on the orders of No. 10." He was called back to London to face 18 disciplinary charges (all subsequently disproved), with the Kafkaesque proviso he wasn‘t permitted to discuss these with anyone. Under immense pressure he had a breakdown, sunk in to a pit of depression and experienced a life threatening pulmonary embolism. However, although Murray recovered and returned to his post, in October 2004 he was sacked, ostensibly "for operational reasons."
A year later Murray unsuccessfully stood against his old boss Jack Straw in the 2005 General Election, and published Murder in Samarkand, his own account of events – offering a refreshingly honest and fallible portrait of himself. "Her body invited sex while her eyes screamed ‘save me‘", wrote the then married Murray upon seeing 21-year old Nadira – whom he now lives with in London – for the first time in a club where she worked as an erotic dancer. Murray explains his candour: "I had been through this terrible smear campaign where they made all kinds of allegations which were not true, and I thought the best way to tackle this is to be completely honest and open."
The news that Murder in Samarkand is being made in to a film will publicise his story to millions of people around the world. The script has been written by the playwright David Hare and will be directed by Michael Winterbottom, with the comic actor Steve Coogan playing Murray. "I think I am in very safe hands", he says of Winterbottom, whose previous work includes The Road to Guantamano and 24 Hour Party People. About Coogan, Murray says they "haven‘t really had any serious discussions yet. The trouble is when we meet we tend to drink and tell jokes."
Murray is also in the middle of writing three books, including an earlier set of memoirs about his time in Africa and an historical biography of Alexander Burns, a diplomat, explorer and army officer who died in the first Afghan war. "The parallels of that invasion and what has gone wrong with our current invasion our absolutely extraordinary", he says. "We are very bad from learning from history."
Returning to his defiance of the UK Government, Murray says he is amazed how few people have resigned over Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror‘. "The lesson of it is that most people will do anything to hang on to their job", he says. The ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan isn‘t so easily silenced though: "I hope to be around to annoy the Government for sometime to come."
Murder in Samarkand. A British Ambassador‘s Controversial Defiance of Tyranny in the War on Terror is published by Mainstream Publishing, priced £7.99.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected].