The killing of hundreds of protesters in Uzbekistan by government troops has focused the world's attention on the strategic Central Asian nation.
The violence began on Friday after a pro-democracy protest and a jailbreak involving men accused of "Islamic extremism" in the eastern city of Andijan.
Since then, President Islam Karimov's government and its human rights record have come under the spotlight, and the possibility that he will be the second Central Asian leader to be toppled this year has been raised.
The US, which has a military base in the country, and Russia argue that Karimov is a stabilising force, a bastion against the spread of Islamic extremism, and a valuable ally in the war on terror.
But Craig Murray, who was sacked in October 2004 as UK ambassador to Uzbekistan after he spoke out against rights abuses, says the Uzbek government is beyond the pale and the West should wash its hands of it.
In an interview with Aljazeera.net, London-based Murray predicts that Islam Karimov will maintain his position; but says Uzbekistan will continue to suffer internal violence as long as he is in charge.
Aljazeera.net: The Uzbek government has closed down the towns of Andijan and Korasuv amid reports of popular uprisings. What do you think is happening?
Craig Murray: The regime will be cracking down now as harshly as possible. They will probably just be arresting and shooting people.
This is a hideous and ruthless regime, and the fact that they are closing down towns and not letting journalists in is an ominous sign.
Following the Andijan shootings, Karimov said no other president in the world would allow armed men to spring criminal suspects from jails and let them get away with it. He said government soldiers were provoked into shooting by a rampaging mob.
You must remember that there is major frustration in Uzbekistan about the justice system.
Trials are a farce and 99% of people are summarily found guilty.
Uzbeks are fleeing fighting in the
eastern city of Andijan
People are just locked up for their beliefs, so it is not particularly surprising that local people would consider these men to have been unfairly incarcerated.
Also, the soldiers who carried out this action are likely to have been Karimov's personal troops from the Interior Ministry and it is well known that they do not hesitate when it comes to shooting people.
You have been a vocal critic of President Karimov. Since you left Uzbekistan a year ago, have your opinions changed?
No, Karimov is a ruthless tyrant. He is not interested in the welfare of the people - he is just concerned with maintaining his own power and enriching himself and his family while the country gets poorer and poorer.
He has done all this with complete US support, but this regime is beyond the pale and the West should not be working with it at all.
But the Uzbek opposition has also been criticised for extremism and links to terrorism. The Islamic group Hizb ut Tahrir, which wants a worldwide Islamic state, has been implicated in the unrest.
The attempt by the Uzbek regime and the White House to dismiss the opposition as "Islamic extremists" and "terrorists" is despicable.
I was in Andijan about a year ago and I met the local leaders.They just wanted more freedom to get on with their lives, especially economic freedom.
Uzbek troops have been accused
of human rights abuses
Ninety-nine per cent of them have nothing to do with Hizb ut Tahrir, and even if they did, Hizb ut Tahrir is a completely non-violent organisation.
I think Uzbek Islam is a rather quiet form of Islam, heavily influenced by Sufism. It is more Turkey [influenced] than the Taliban. That said, if there were free and fair elections in Uzbekistan, the government would certainly take on a more Islamic character.
How do you think events will now unfold? Some have spoken of a popular revolution that will topple Karimov, like the one that recently overthrew President Askar Akayev in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan?
I doubt if Karimov will be overthrown, because the regime has such a tight control over the country. The media is completely under their control and the opposition have not been allowed to politically organise.
In Kyrgyzstan, there was at least some freedom of the press and the opposition were allowed to form political parties.
And don't forget this is a regime that is more than willing to mow down hundreds of people, which will certainly act as a deterrent to an uprising.
But what I do expect to see are more incidents of violence, like in Andijan, which are driven by desperation at economic, political and social conditions.
What responsibility does the West bear now that the crisis has reached this point?
George Bush should definitely bear responsibility for the deaths of those 500 people.
Top administration officials such as Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell all visited Tashkent and lavished praise on Karimov.
And Karimov himself has visited the White House, where he received lots of compliments and no rebukes about human rights.
Islam Karimovhas received lots of
compliments from the West
The US and Britain have undoubtedly helped to prevent the development of pro-democracy movements in Uzbekistan.
They are always making noises about fighting a war on terror and Karimov being a valuable bulwark in that fight, but they are creating the conditions for terror by supporting him.
The people of Uzbekistan feel the West has abandoned them and in the future they could turn to radicalism or even terror out of desperation. The West is feeding the terror they are claiming to fight.
What would you like to see Western governments do?
The US gives Uzbekistan $100 million in aid each year and I would like to see a stop to that. I would like to see personal sanctions against Karimov and his family, including a travel ban on them and an end to them moving their finances around Europe.
I would also like to see a boycott of Uzbek cotton - this will not hurt ordinary people, because they do not really benefit from the industry, whereas the regime does. It should be made clear that Uzbekistan is a pariah state.
On a personal note, do you feel vindicated by the international attention that is now focused on Karimov's government?
How can I feel personally vindicated when 500 people have just been killed?
I suppose I am satisfied that people now realise what I said was true; but I wish it did not have to come to this for that to happen.