Britain's man in Tashkent wades back into controversy

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Indy Politics

Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has renewed his criticism of the former Soviet republic's human rights record.

Mr Murray condemned a sentence imposed on the mother of a Muslim dissident killed in an Uzbek prison as another example of the government's disregard for human rights.

The ambassador returned to Uzbekistan last month after he was called back to the UK by the Foreign Office amid allegations about his behaviour in post at the capital, Tashkent.

He had accused the Uzbek regime of jailing and torturing tens of thousands of religious and political prisoners, sometimes using boiling water. His comments offended his hosts as well as Washington because the US has a military base in the republic, which it sees it as a key ally in Central Asia.

His supporters in Tashkent claimed the charges against him, which included allegations of drinking and womanising, were the result of Washington pressurising Downing Street to restrain his criticisms.

If so, the tactic does not appear to have worked because yesterday Mr Murray criticised the Uzbek government and American support for the regime. Speaking to BBC World Service, Mr Murray said the six-year sentence imposed on 62-year-old Fatima Mukadyrova was "simply appalling". Mrs Mukadyrova had accused prison authorities of torturing her son to death and shown photographs of his scalded body to diplomats and journalists.

A Tashkent court found her guilty yesterday of inciting racial hatred and "infringement of the constitutional order" because of banned Muslim pamphlets found in her flat. Her case opened last week and was mostly heard behind closed doors.

Mr Murray said: "It is another example of a gross breach of human rights in Uzbekistan."

He said foreign states should press Uzbekistan to abide by international human rights obligations and the treaties it had signed. "We have taken the view that because of the lack of reform in the country it is not really possible to put in place a major aid programme which will benefit the people of Uzbekistan," he said.

"Obviously, we would prefer it if other major states took the same view," he said, in an apparent criticism of the United States - which last year tripled aid to the Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, to £295m.

Vasilya Inoyatova, the head of an unofficial Uzbek human rights group, Ezgulik, said of Mrs Mukadyrova's sentence: "The reason they gave her six years is as a lesson to those who dare to speak out."

Mr Murray, 45, rose through diplomatic ranks quickly and was regarded as one of the rising stars of the Foreign Office.

In his first speech after being posted to Uzbekistan he said it was not a functioning democracy and did not show any signs of becoming one. He also accused the government of running a brutal system in which public debate was censored and opponents were tortured. He was recalled to London twice last year for unspecified medical reasons, and was said to be the subject of a Foreign Office inquiry into allegations of drinking, and reportedly driving a Land Rover down some lakeside steps. There were demonstrations outside the British embassy in Tashkent in protest at his recall and 15 British citizens there, including businessmen, supported him in a letter to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. One said there was "a common belief Mr Murray is being sacrificed to the Americans". Mr Murray was also given support by Amnesty International, which praised his support for human rights.

Mr Murray's diplomatic critics believe he breached protocol by criticising the host government and thereby weakened his negotiating position.