Uzbek rights protest backs British envoy

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The Independent Online

Human rights activists rallied outside the British Embassy in Uzbekistan to support the ambassador, claiming he is is under pressure to resign for criticising the United States' ally in central Asia.

The demonstration yesterday was the second in a week backing Craig Murray, who has criticised Uzbekistan's human rights record.

He has been in Britain receiving medical treatment for almost two months, according to the Foreign Office. London said that he remained ambassador to Tashkent, but Uzbek officials claim that he is unlikely to return.

Mr Murray, 45, who is Britain's youngest ambassador, surprised the diplomatic community by criticising Uzbekistan in his first speech in the country a year ago. "Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy," he said. Uzbekistan'shuman rights record, which has been attacked by international bodies, includes allegations that people have been murdered by torture and that more than 6,000 political prisoners are held in squalid jails.

Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, is an important ally in the war on terrorism. American aid tripled to $500m (£295m) last year and it hosts hundreds of US troops.

Mr Murray's supporters believe that he is a victim of Washington's political manoeuvring, but the Uzbek Foreign Ministry denies being involved in hisrecall to London. The Foreign Office said that Mr Murray's return depended on his health.