Britain’s ambassador in Tashkent, who mysteriously returned to this country last month on temporary sick leave, was the victim of threats from Downing Street related to his outspoken views on US foreign policy in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
Inquiries by the Guardian have discovered that Craig Murray, one of Britain’s youngest ambassadors, was subsequently called back from his Uzbekistan post, threatened with the loss of his job, and accused of a miscellaneous string of diplomatic shortcomings in what his friends say is a wholly unfair way.
The accusations against him included:
? Supporting the visa application of the daughter of an Uzbek family friend who overstayed in England;
? Drinking too convivially with Uzbek locals;
? Allowing an embassy Land Rover to be driven down steps.
Mr Murray’s subsequent episode of depression, for which he had medical treatment, was preceded by what one Foreign Office source calls “a campaign of systematic undermining”.
A senior source said the former ambassador had been put under pressure to stop his repeated criticisms of the brutal Karimov regime, accused among other things of boiling prisoners to death. The source said the pressure was partly “exercised on the orders of No 10”, which found his outspokenness about the compromises Washington was prepared to make in its “war on terror” increasingly embarrassing in the lead up to the Iraq war.
“He was told that the next time he stepped away from the Ameri can line, he would lose his post,” said the source. During a visit earlier this year at the height of the political tensions prior to the Iraq invasion, the former development secretary, Clare Short, is reported to have said to him: “I love the job you are doing down here, but you know, don’t you, that if I go, you go.” She eventually resigned over the Iraq war.
When the affable and energetic Scottish diplomat arrived in Tashkent a year ago at the age of 45, he was a rising star. He had survived the 1998 Sierra Leone scandal, and indeed been promoted.
A firm run by Lt Col Tim Spicer, accused of shipping arms to war-torn Sierra Leone, claimed to have got approval from Mr Murray, then deputy head of the Equatorial Africa department. But Mr Murray told an inquiry he had been “set up” by Spicer, and a committee of MPs absolved him of anything other than “a certain naivety”.
Uzbekistan, a post-Soviet police state on the strategically important border with Afghanistan, was another potential political minefield. Uzbek security services use “torture as a routine investigation technique”, according to the US State Department. But Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led them to finance much of the regime’s security apparatus. In exchange the US gets a military base in Khanabad as a centre for operations in Afghanistan. Last year Washington gave the government $500m (?298m) in aid, $79m of which was specifically for the same “law enforcement and security services” they accused of routine torture.
Mr Murray upset the regime of President Islam Karimov with his blunt remarks on torture. His comments also began to accentuate the differences in the Foreign Office’s supposed ethical foreign policy and its support for US actions. In October last year at Freedom House, Mr Murray read a speech that had been cleared by the Foreign Office to the assembled dignitaries, including top Uzbek officials and the US ambassador.
He said: “We believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. No government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, and who pursue their views by peaceful means.”
The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, brought Mr Murray’s hard-hitting speech up in a meeting with Mr Karimov. This was said to have incensed Mr Karimov. Mr Murray sent numerous reports to London about human rights abuses, and his dispatches became increasingly heated during the build-up to the Iraqi invasion. He argued Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses were as bad as those being used as ammunition against Baghdad. Yet Washington was financing Uzbekistan, rather than invading it, he said.
He received many internal emails of support, and some of criticism. He became personally involved in exposing torture, commissioning a forensic report on the bodies of two political prisoners, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, which concluded they had probably been boiled to death.
Last June a Foreign Office investigator arrived in Tashkent following an unconnected row in which an embassy official had sacked three locally hired staff. According to local sources, the investigator kept asking pointed questions about the ambassador himself.
“Somebody seems to be out to get him,” one source noted at the time. The report is said to have exonerated the ambassador from any blame for the personnel problems.
But in August, when Mr Murray went on holiday, a second investigator went out to Tashkent. He appears to have gleaned allegations of ambassadorial indiscretion.
According to friends, Mr Murray had supported the visa request of a young Uzbek girl who wanted to study in Britain. The daughter of a distinguished Uzbek professor, she had been granted a visa to attend a month-long course. Yet she stayed on afterwards for about 10 days of tourism. The consul section of the embassy became agitated, and asked Mr Murray to intervene. Mr Murray rang her father, and asked for her swift return.
In Who’s Who, he lists “drinking and gossiping” as his recreations. But one source close to the embassy insisted: “I have never seen Craig drunk at work. He knew how to entertain as part of his job, but he was not a drinker. It’s absurd.” Another source said: “He had a lot of respect from a lot of people. That would not have happened if he was drunk.”
His driver was said to have driven an embassy Land Rover down some terraced steps to get to a lake shore, on an embassy picnic. “He was just showing how well-built the British car was,” joked one friend. “I heard another senior embassy official drove another one down there im mediately behind him. But he wasn’t disciplined.”
Yet Mr Murray was called back from holiday to London, and threatened with demotion or the sack.
“One can certainly suppose the Uzbeks hated him,” said one Tashkent source close to the embassy. “There is no solid information on American involvement, but people close to him seemed to think they knew it had happened that way.” A US official at their Tashkent embassy said: “The US government had nothing to do with Mr Murray’s leaving Uzbekistan.”
The Foreign Office denies that the US has put pressure on Downing Street. It claims that if there had been such pressure, the FO would not have included critical comments about Uzbekistan in its annual human rights report last month.
A spokesman yesterday refused to comment on whether there were any disciplinary issues involving Mr Murray. He insisted that he remains the ambassador to Uzbekistan.