Craig Murray is now preparing to return to his post, after reports on this programme and in the press.
According to the Foreign Office, he has always been our ambassador to Uzbekistan, temporarily absent on sick leave. His friends though believe there was an attempt to force him out, after his outspoken criticism of his Uzbek hosts, which reportedly irritated the US, now a strategic partner of Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan was Craig Murray’s first job as ambassador. Top of his year’s Foreign Office intake, he was a veteran of many difficult postings. He was known as a hardworking, talented, but forthright diplomat. From the moment he was formally accredited in the Uzbek capital, he drew attention to human rights abuses in the country. Uzbekistan retains one of the most repressive regimes in the former Soviet Union: constantly criticised by agencies like Human Rights Watch.
In private correspondence within the Foreign Office, Craig Murray drew parallels between the record of Uzbekistan and that of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But it was his comments in October last year which drew most attention.
Before an audience of Uzbek dignitaries and other foreign diplomats, at the opening of the American-backed ‘Freedom House’ foundation in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, he launched a full scale attack. He spoke of prisoners tortured by being boiled alive. Of thousands detained for political or religious reasons. And he said that Uzbekistan was not a functioning democracy, nor making sufficient steps towards that.
According to those who were there, the American ambassador looked uncomfortable. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry summoned Craig Murray on a Sunday to explain himself. But to human rights activists like Talib Jakubov, this was support they’d only dreamt of. “It was like a flash of lightning” he told me in Tashkent. “It made the American ambassador’s speech look pale, watery by comparison”.
Over the next 10 months, Craig Murray continued to mention human rights at every opportunity, to meet activists, and the families of those in prison. But as he came to the end of a month’s leave this summer, he was abruptly called back to London.
There, friends say, he was told he had a week to resign or be recalled. He was told of possible disciplinary charges arising from his conduct.
Craig Murray had inherited a troubled embassy. The Foreign Office had sent out investigators to look into difficulties with some members of staff, not the ambassador himself. They apparently heard rumours about Craig Murray’s behaviour.
The ambassador’s friends in Tashkent freely admit he had an unconventional approach to his job: they say he travelled far more than most diplomats in Uzbekistan, he liked to talk to people, and he would often stay out late into the night doing just that.
Eric Reynolds, a British businessman in Tashkent, told me that he’d often shared a pint with Craig Murray in the early hours of the morning. “He could make a pint last an hour”, he told me. “He wasn’t a fast drinker, never a heavy drinker”.
Local journalists say they’d heard gossip about the ambassador’s alleged private life. Human rights activists believe such rumours were deliberately spread by the agencies of the Uzbek government.
The leading human rights lawyer Surat Ikramov told me he’d heard from his own government sources that the Uzbek Foreign Ministry were running such a campaign. He was so concerned that in June he wrote to Jack Straw to try to warn him. The letter was hand carried to London, but the Foreign Office say they have no record of receiving it.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry strongly deny any such activity and there is no evidence to connect them to the rumours. They say only that they are sorry the ambassador is unwell.
The deputy foreign minister said he believes Uzbekistan is generally misunderstood, especially in western Europe. He told me of improvements in the prison system and a drop in infant mortality. He said “we know we have problems … we are not dumb,” but he said Uzbekistan welcomed criticism when accompanied by concrete help (he cited American aid to train prison and police staff). However when asked about the prisoners boiled alive, the cases singled out by Craig Murray, he claimed that other prisoners in the same jail had confessed to the murders. Craig Murray had commissioned an independent report from photographs of the body before coming to his own conclusion.
Friends say after being given the ultimatum by London, Craig Murray suffered a sudden depressive illness. He was “medivac-ed” (evacuated for medical reasons) back to London for treatment at the expense of the Foreign Office. Friends say he has now completely recovered.