Envoy who criticised hosts is flown home with illness

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The Independent Online

A British ambassador who has been an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan has been flown home seriously ill in an air ambulance days after he returned to his posting in Tashkent. Craig Murray, 45, had spent two months at home suffering from medical problems reported to have been brought on by stress.

During his time in the Central Asian republic, Britain's youngest ambassador had publicly denounced the US-backed regime for imprisoning thousands of its political opponents. He also accused Uzbekistan of failing to introduce democracy, censoring public debate and torturing opponents in a prison system he called brutal.

Yesterday the Foreign Office refused to comment on Mr Murray's condition but confirmed he would be returning to Uzbekistan when he had recovered. "He has returned to the UK for medical treatment," a Foreign Office spokesman said. "He remains the British ambassador. We hope that after his medical treatment he will be back in post."

Demonstrators had rallied in front of Britain's embassy in Tashkent in support of Mr Murray, who in a speech last year accused the Uzbek regime of jailing up to 10,000 religious and political prisoners, of stifling dissidents by sending them to lunatic asylums and of torturing prisoners. These included two members of a banned Islamist party tortured to death in the notorious Zhaslyk prison.

"World attention has recently been focused on the prevalence of torture in Uzbek prisons," he said. "The terrible case of Avazoz and Amilov, apparently tortured to death by boiling water, has evoked great international concern."

His criticism infuriated the Uzbek regime and offended Washington, which has a large military base in the country and has hundreds of troops posted there. Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, was seen as a crucial ally in the war on terror and America tripled aid to the country to £295m last year.

The ambassador's friends in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, have claimed America put pressure on Downing Street to investigate him after his outspoken comments. Mr Murray is reported to have been the subject of an official Foreign Office inquiry, during which there were allegations of drinking.

The ambassador returned to London in September on "health grounds" after pressure from the investigation reportedly led to his exhaustion. Fifteen British citizens, including businessmen, in Tashkent backed Mr Murray in a letter to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. One said there was "a common belief Mr Murray is being sacrificed to the Americans". Yesterday Amnesty International offered its support to the ambassador, and praised him for speaking out against human rights abuses. "We think it has been really important Craig Murray has had the strength to speak out against human rights violations," a spokesman said. "We would welcome the same kind of outspokenness from ambassadors in other postings such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the occupied territories and Russia."

Mr Murray has had a distinguished diplomatic career until the recent controversy, and had risen up the ranks of the Foreign Office swiftly. But he is regarded by many diplomats as having breached protocol by criticising publicly the regime where he is posted. This would have weakened his negotiating position on human rights issues and damaged any clout he may have had.

But his comments about Uzbekistan's human rights record raised the issue on the international stage. They also chime with criticism from international bodies including the UN. The UN's special rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven, described the use of torture in Uzbekistan as systematic in his report to the UN Commission on human rights. The Foreign Office's own report on human rights published in September concluded: "Torture is a serious problem in Uzbekistan."