So our man in Tashkent is no more: Craig Murray, British ambassador to Uzbekistan, has been sacked. Murray's dismissal is the most dramatic development yet in a murky saga involving torture, murder, sex and the war on terror. Murray has confirmed that he intends to take legal action and his treatment raises questions about the commitment of the Foreign Office under Jack Straw to the "ethical dimension" - announced seven years ago by his predecessor, Robin Cook.
Naturally the Foreign Office is keen to deny any link between Murray's outspokenness and his dismissal. On Friday, a spokesman told me Murray had been sacked because ambassadors need to have the full confidence of colleagues and ministers - and Murray does not. He denied that pressure from the Uzbek government had anything to do with it, as did the Uzbek embassy. (The embassy used to demand that the Independent be prevented from publishing critical articles about Uzbekistan, but that was some time ago.)
"This was entirely an internal Foreign Office matter," an embassy spokesman insisted. "We did nothing in relation to his being here. As far as we were concerned, we accepted him. He was welcome to stay." This certainly was not the impression I got two weeks ago, when I and a colleague from the Writers in Prison Committee attended a meeting at the embassy. When Murray's name came up, diplomats could barely pronounce it without hissing; more to the point, they gleefully told us he had lost the support of the Foreign Office. When I challenged this assertion, they were adamant: Murray was finished and they didn't have to listen to him any more.
When I asked the Foreign Office how the Uzbeks could have known about Murray's fall from grace at least 10 days before it became public, a spokesman was stumped. "It's purely an internal decision," he insisted. Yet Murray has almost single-handedly exposed the ghastly behaviour of our (and the Bush administration's - they have an important military base there) ally in the war on terror. Some observers even credit Murray with embarrassing the US State Department into cutting aid to President Islam Karimov, who desperately needs it for his stagnating economy.
It was Murray who made a speech at Freedom House in Tashkent two years ago, claiming there were between 7,000 and 10,000 political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan and "brutality is inherent" in Karimov's jails. It was Murray who sent photographs of the corpses of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, members of banned Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir for analysis, and established that they had been boiled to death.
It was Murray, alone among diplomats in Tashkent, who got used to seeing terrified Uzbeks appear at his residence in the middle of the night, bleeding and begging for help. And it was Murray who, in a memo leaked to the press on Monday, pointed out that the Government's use of intelligence obtained under torture in Uzbekistan "fatally undermines our moral standing".
The Foreign Office is adamant that Murray's public criticisms of the regime reflect its own position. Yet it has not explained why he suddenly found himself facing 18 disciplinary charges last autumn, including the grave accusation that he demanded sex from young women in exchange for visas - or why all the charges were subsequently dropped. This was nothing to do with them either, the Uzbek embassy insisted last week, while a Foreign Office spokesman told me he had no idea where the charges originated.
If Murray is guilty of anything, it is naivety, for it looks as though someone, somewhere, has been trying to get rid of him for some time. Does his sacking have anything to do with the war on terror, which has brought the Uzbek regime so many benefits? We are left with a couple of strange coincidences. The most outspoken British ambassador on human rights has lost his job. The regime that loathes him appears to have known in advance. Excuse me if I can't help feeling that Presidents Bush and Karimov must be mightily relieved this weekend.Reuse content