Let's hear it for Our Man in Tashkent

Eighteen months ago, the British ambassador to a little-reported Central Asian republic made an extraordinary speech. He acknowledged that the country to which he had recently been posted was an important ally during the conflict in Afghanistan, but insisted that no government had the right to use the war against terror as an excuse to persecute people for their religious beliefs. He said that between 7,000 and 10,000 prisoners were being held for religious or political reasons. "Brutality is inherent," he said, mentioning the "terrible case" of two young men, Avazoz and Alimov, who appeared to have been tortured to death with boiling water.

This speech caused unease at the Foreign Office, which nevertheless, to its credit, did not seek to dissuade the ambassador from delivering it. In those days, few people outside diplomatic circles had heard of Craig Murray. But recently the British ambassador to Uzbekistan has started making headlines, not least last week when he attacked President Islam Karimov's "appalling" human rights record. Eight months ago, Murray faced 18 charges of misconduct, which have since been dropped by the Foreign Office; a month later, he was recalled to London, apparently on health grounds, fuelling suspicions that his criticism of the Uzbek regime had angered the US, which regards Karimov as a key ally.

Lurid allegations about Murray's private life have appeared in British newspapers. One of his friends, speaking anonymously to The Times last week, said that the ambassador was putting his job on the line by talking to journalists about human rights. I can say from my own dealings with Murray that he is an approachable and compassionate man, who has become a hero in Uzbekistan. Two colleagues from PEN, the writers' organisation whose Writers in Prison Committee I chair, have just returned from Tashkent full of praise for him, describing how he has become virtually the only source of assistance for desperate families whose relatives have been tortured or disappeared. Ten days ago, he arrived late for a meeting with my colleagues, saying that he had been attending the trial of yet another dissident.

Murray is a new breed of British ambassador, ready to stick his neck out and denounce human rights abuses. When Labour won the general election in 1997, the old mercantilist culture of the Foreign Office was challenged by the introduction of human rights training and closer links with organisations such as PEN and Amnesty International. Inevitably this has caused tensions, especially when the imperatives of the struggle against international terrorism have come up against the Government's commitment to human rights. Nowhere is this conflict sharper than in Karimov's Uzbekistan, where the former Soviet hardliner has manipulated the Bush administration's fear of al-Qa'ida to secure huge quantities of dollars for his vicious, corrupt regime. Thousands of American troops are based at Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan, and Colin Powell has hinted that the US government will release more than $50m (£27m) in aid, supposedly tied to improvements in human rights which have failed to materialise, next month.

This leaves Murray as a lone voice in Tashkent, confirming reports from foreign NGOs that political prisoners regularly have their teeth and nails ripped out. His latest condemnation of Karimov's treatment of dissidents came in a week of carnage, when at least 43 people died in two suicide bombings at the Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent, in armed attacks on police and in shoot-outs between militia and insurgents. The attacks were blamed by Sadiq Safaev, the Uzbek foreign minister, on the non-violent Islamic sect Hizb ut-Tahrir, aided by what he called the "hand of international terror".

Murray condemned the bombings but urged caution about the identity of the perpetrators, whom some observers believe to be home-grown opponents of the regime. It's a familiar and frightening story: the brutal suppression of legitimate dissent is encouraging violent fundamentalism. Two years ago, I heard a senior British official tell the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that the chances of Karimov's dictatorship being overthrown and replaced by an Islamist state were 50-50. Murray may sound undiplomatic, but our man in Tashkent understands that danger better than anyone.

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