The mystery of our man in Tashkent

A UK ambassador spoke out against tyranny and infuriated the US. Now he faces disciplinary charges a

Officially, the reasons why Craig Murray, Her Majesty's ambassador to Uzbekistan, is lying in a London hospital are a private matter. The rumours that are flying from Tashkent to London and back are nothing more than a voyeuristic intrusion on a diplomat whose state of health is nobody's business but his family's and his employer's. A Foreign Office spokeswoman directed all questions to a stone wall.

Had Murray's superiors been trying to discipline or fire him?

"No comment."

Was he suffering from stress?

"No comment."

When is he expected to return to work?

"We're not looking to the future on that. How long medical treatment lasts is a medical decision."

In most contexts, her answers would have been perfectly proper and my inquiries an impertinent intrusion. But human rights workers, British businessmen in Tashkent and Uzbek dissidents say that what the Foreign Office paints as Murray's private distress conceals a diplomatic scandal. Small items have appeared in the Times and on news agency wires. Behind them is an allegation from people who knew Murray well that the Foreign Office threatened to ruin his career with lurid allegations after he inconvenienced the war against terrorism by speaking out against the abuses of power.

The Foreign Office won't talk. Murray can't talk - he'd lose his job if he did. Many of his friends will talk, but only on condition of anonymity. Sifting out the truth is tricky, and it's best to begin with what all sides accept as indisputable.

At 45, Murray is one of Britain's youngest ambassadors. In 2002, a rise through the Foreign Office hierarchy appeared to be his for the taking when he got the Tashkent embassy. Uzbekistan, once a miserable post-Soviet backwater, had become a launch pad for American force. By the time Murray took up his post, it was clear that Osama Bin Laden's perverse achievement had been to turn the US from the world's only superpower into a global empire. Nothing illustrated its imperial reach better than the decision of the Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, to allow an American base at Khanabad, just north of the border with what was then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The achievement was breathtaking, as ecstatic Washington conservatives admitted at the time. Uzbekistan was a former province of the Soviet Union. It straddled the old silk route to China. Yet here were American troops in the middle of central Asia, and there was nothing the Russians or Chinese could do about it.

Karimov had his embarrassing quirks. He was a relic of the Soviet days who had transformed himself, Milosevic-style, from a communist to a nationalist boss. In his speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair had implied that the war against terrorism must also be a war against the oppression that men such as Karimov inflicted. From Palestine to Africa, the "moral power of a world acting as a community" must be used to eradicate the breeding grounds of violence, he declared. Craig Murray took the Prime Minister at his word.

The grim cold war line about supporting "bastards" as long as they were "our bastards" had no place in the new century, Murray believed. Uzbekistan had helped in the struggle to overthrow the Taliban theocracy, but that was no reason to overlook the crimes of Karimov and his goons. On 17 October 2002, Murray went to Freedom House, an American-funded cultural institute in Tashkent, and, in his speech, tore into the Uzbek regime.

"Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy," he told the assembled Uzbek leaders and diplomats. "The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election, and checks and balances on the authority of the executive are lacking. There is worse: we believe there to be between seven and ten thousand people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. In many cases, they have been falsely convicted of crimes with which there appears to be no credible evidence they had any connection."

Uzbekistan had its local variety of al-Qaeda fanatics who were as ready to spread mass murder as the next fundamentalist. But, Murray continued, the war against them was being used as "an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, who pursue their views by peaceful means. Sadly, the large majority of those wrongly imprisoned in Uzbekistan fall into this category." Two members of the minority Russian community had died after being immersed in boiling water, Murray noted. Uzbek prosecutors enjoyed a conviction rate of "almost 100 per cent", and neither television nor the press commented on their startling success or any other subject that might upset the authorities.

Murray ended with a peroration that the Tony Blair of 2001 might have written. "I believe that people are born with an instinct for liberty and that freedom and democracy come naturally to people everywhere, once they are given the chance. Giving people freedom does not mean that anarchy and insta- bility will follow. Indeed, it is repression which, by allowing no outlet for pressures in society, risks causing resentment, alienation and social tension."

The speech created a sensation. "You could have cut the tension in the room with a blunt knife," a member of the audience at Freedom House said afterwards. The BBC World Service covered it, and Kofi Annan, who arrived in Tashkent the next day, was briefed on its contents. Murray made many enemies, and not only in the Uzbek government. David Stern, a freelance journalist in Tashkent, reported that American diplomats felt upstaged and embarrassed. Murray had discomforted them by pointing to "the crack in the shield", as one diplomat put it.

The Foreign Office's Human Rights Policy Division was delighted. The 2003 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights Annual Report quoted him with approval. But the human rights division is only a small part of the FO. Others had an instinctive aversion to the "naive" decision of a new ambassador to abandon "the usual channels" and "quiet diplomacy" and create a diplomatic incident.

What Murray said at Freedom House is public knowledge. Credible sources in Tashkent have told me that when the war against Saddam Hussein's tyranny loomed, Murray privately blotted his copybook by drawing to his superiors' attention the similarities between Uzbekistan and Iraq. If state terror was to be fought in the latter, shouldn't it also be fought in the former? This was an "unpatriotic" question when British troops were preparing for combat.

An investigation into the ambassador's conduct followed and disciplinary charges were prepared. With the FO refusing to comment, it is impossible to be certain of the precise wording, but he was apparently painted as a hellraising, drink-loving womaniser who chased the bottle and the girls when he should have been concentrating on his work. The charge against him was the gravest the Foreign Office could raise: "unambassadorial behaviour". Murray sunk into a depression as the case against him was built, and was flown back to London for treatment in September.

"I find the accusations against him ludicrous," said a female aid worker in Tashkent. "I met him many times and he was as sober as a judge. I never felt my virtue was endangered." More surprisingly, perhaps, Murray got support from expat businessmen, who aren't usually at the forefront of campaigns against tyranny. "The common belief is that Mr Murray is being sacrificed to the Americans,"said James McGrory, a Tashkent-based businessman who is close to the Murray family. "The US embassy makes no effort to conceal its dislike of the way he repeatedly and unequivocally slams [Uzbekistan's] human rights record. The rumours flying around are that the US embassy objected to him disturbing their work in Uzbekistan. They certainly loathed him."

McGrory and 14 other prominent expats wrote to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, saying that Murray had "promoted British culture and political ideals to an extent not previously known here and increased British prestige".

I said earlier that the FO investigation into Murray "followed" his principled stand. But I can't prove the link. Correlation isn't causation, and senior civil servants insist that anyone who says that Murray is being punished for speaking out will be making fools of themselves. The FO had stood by him when he attacked the Uzbek leadership, and people who forgot that were in danger of adding two and two and making five.

Maybe. But there's a good way to settle the question. Although a charge d'affaires is now the acting ambassador, Murray, according to the FO, remains in post. If he indeed returns to Tashkent, then doubtless I and others will look like paranoid idiots. If, however, he should be fired or moved to a minor position in a minor embassy, MPs would be entitled to a full and public explanation of why the apparently brilliant career of a high-flying ambassador had been so abruptly terminated.