It is clear when you meet Craig Murray, suspended as ambassador to Uzbekistan for speaking out on human rights, that he is not the Foreign Office type.
He opens the door to the top-floor flat in London Docklands, where he is staying, in an orange T-shirt, loose-fit jeans and trainers.
He went to grammar school and Dundee University and, as he points out, cannot pronounce his Rs. But then, how could the FO refuse a candidate who came in the top three in his year when he took the Civil Service entrance exams in 1984.?
“I always felt a little uncomfortable in the Foreign Office,” suggests Mr Murray with uncharacteristically diplomatic understatement.
As he speaks, Nadira Alieva, a 23-year-old Uzbek teacher and his girlfriend, flits through the room, her brown hair artfully backcombed, in tight jeans and a T-shirt that reads: “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to London.”
Mr Murray continued: “I applied to scores of firms when I left university. What I wanted was to work in sales in the distillery industry but I didn’t receive a single reply. It was only when I passed the Civil Service exams that I decided on the Foreign Office.”
Mr Murray’s brains ensured a rapid rise. Deputy high commissioner in Ghana, first secretary in Warsaw, second secretary in Lagos and, in August 2002 at the age of 43, Uzbekistan as the youngest serving British ambassador.
Two years later he has been hauled back to London and suspended on full pay after “losing the confidence of his colleagues” in one of the most embarrassing scandals to hit the august corridors of Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps for many years. He faces a disciplinary inquiry and, almost inevitably, dismissal.
His crime is hard to pin down. Was it his telegrams to London which spoke in undiplomatic terms of torture and corruption, or was it his friendly press relations?
“While still in Tashkent I’d get two or three requests a week for interviews,” Mr Murray explained. “And as is the rule, I routinely passed them on to London for clearance.
“Their response was always to tell the journalist, ‘Mr Murray does not want to do interviews’, which annoyed me because I really wanted to speak about the atrocities.” Whatever else he has done, Mr Murray is a man of principle who felt compelled to detail the human rights abuses he saw in a country which, shortly before he arrived, had become America’s New Best Friend in Asia.
Run by Islam Karimov, a post-Soviet apparatchik with a Stalinist mindset, Uzbekistan happens to border Afghanistan and was willing – for a large injection of United States money – to provide Washington with one of the region’s largest air bases. Two months into his new posting, Mr Murray delivered a speech at the opening of new offices for the human rights organisation Freedom House that changed the tone of relations between London and Tashkent fundamentally and marked the beginning of the end of his career.
His mistake was to tell a stunned audience of diplomats, aid workers and Uzbek officials what they already knew. “Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy.
“The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election; and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking,” he said.
One of those present said the tension in the room could have been cut with a knife.
Unfortunately for Mr Murray, the repercussions extended far beyond Uzbekistan’s frontiers. In the Foreign Office there was total confusion. The speech had been authorised but clearly no one had realised that it would cause such offence.
While the official line insisted that Mr Murray “accurately reflects our concerns”, there was a sudden awareness that London had a problem. Other incidents followed. Mr Murray spoke in public of the absence of reform and freedom of speech and about repression. The British embassy, seen as a backwater under its previous ambassador, became a magnet for dissidents.
“They turned up at my door with broken teeth and burns from torture. Some would spend the night in my home. On one occasion the grandson of a dissident I had met was murdered within hours of my speaking to his grandfather. They left his body on the doorstep. His hands and knees had been smashed with a hammer. It was a warning not to speak to me,” he said.
“Very little can prepare you for the brutality and viciousness of the Karimov regime. Most diplomats isolate themselves from it.”
In August 2003, Mr Murray was called in to the Foreign Office on his way back to Tashkent after his summer holidays and confronted with a list of 18 charges of misconduct. These included accusations of drunkenness, womanising and “unpatriotic behaviour”. He was asked to resign and refused.
Specifically, the charges claimed that he had seduced visa applicants in return for entry stamps to Britain, travelled through Tashkent to visit drinking dens in the official car “with the flag up” and driven an embassy Land Rover down a flight of steps to a picnic area In fact, Mr Murray cannot even drive.
All charges, bar one – that he was guilty of talking about the charges laid against him – were dropped through lack of evidence and Mr Murray was allowed to return to work. But far from silencing him, the attempt to blacken his name provided endless headlines. “I am stunned by their incompetence,” said Mr Murray. “If they had pulled me out immediately it would have been in the papers for a couple of days and that’s it.”
Instead there were protests outside the British embassy and 15 British businessmen signed a letter to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, supporting Mr Murray.
While in London awaiting the outcome of the charges against him Mr Murray had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to St Thomas’s Hospital and put on suicide watch for 10 days. It was shortly after Dr David Kelly had died and there were fears that the official hounding of Mr Murray might see another fatality.
No sooner had Mr Murray returned to Tashkent, however, than the awkward memos to London resumed.
He was warned that he was being “unpatriotic” and newspapers started printing stories querying his sanity.
Clearly, someone was briefing against him. Close associates believe that if not the Foreign Office, it would have been MI6 – Mr Murray, after all, was jeopardising a strategic military outpost.
How could America continue to pay President Karimov $295 million per year if he was a major human rights offender? It couldn’t, and funding was cut earlier this year because of human rights abuses.
British officials suggest that behind it all lies Downing Street, pressured by the Bush administration to silence the diplomatic embarrassment.
When Mr Murray fired off a memorandum to the Foreign Office last July suggesting that Britain’s intelligence services were wrong to use information gleaned from torture victims, his masters threw caution aside. It was clearly time to silence him. He was stripped of his security clearance, making him ineffective as an ambassador.
Yet even this proved insufficient as Mr Murray continued to speak out. Last week, the memo was leaked to the Financial Times.
Because of the leak and a linked appearance on Radio 4’s Today, Mr Murray was suspended from his post.
As he watches the rain sweeping up the Thames, Mr Murray might perhaps take comfort in the memory of Sir Henry Wotton, the British diplomat and poet who died in 1639 and who ruined his own career as James I’s envoy to Venice by suggesting that an ambassador “is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country”.