HUMAN rights activists in Uzbekistan have made an impassioned appeal to Tony Blair and George Bush for the reinstatement of Craig Murray, Britain's ambassador in Tashkent.

Ozod Ovoz (Free Voice), the Uzbekistan-based campaign group for freedom of speech, has sent messages to the two leaders for the return of the Scottish diplomat it described as ''the hand protecting us from dictatorship''.

Mr Murray, 45, returned to the UK last month on temporary sick leave, after reports he was the victim of threats from Downing Street related to his outspoken views on the human rights record of the American-backed Uzbekistan regime.

However, the Foreign Office yesterday denied reports he had been withdrawn from his Uzbekistan post and threatened with the loss of his job.

The dissidents' group questions why the two countries combined to destroy the dictatorship in Iraq but continue to allow the regime of President Islam Karimov in their homeland.

Yusuf Dzhuma, a poet and founder of Ozod Ovoz, and Bobomurod Abdulla, the director, believe that the Uzbekistan government has been the source of the pressure exerted on Mr Murray.

They say in their appeal letter to Mr Bush and Mr Blair: ''Mr Murray was an activist for democracy and an example for other ambassadors. Undoubtedly, his actions were not liked by the government, the dictator of Uzbekistan. If today, world democracy has surrendered to the dictatorship of Uzbekistan, tomorrow democracy will be destroyed.''

Mr Murray's Freedom House speech, made to leading Uzbek officials and John Herbst, the US ambassador, in October, last year, just six months into his Tashkent appointment, referred to two political prisoners, Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov, probably having been boiled to death. He spoke of torture in prisons and dissidents being committed to lunatic asylums.

The Dundee University graduate also said the regime was using Mr Bush's war on terrorism as ''an excuse'' to persecute and imprison those committed to the Islamic religion.

A Foreign Office source said Mr Murray was in the UK for medical treatment, said to be for depression, remained the ambassador, and denied he had been the subject of disciplinary action. But the source could not say whether Mr Murray would return while there were question marks about his health. His wife, Fiona, is believed to be in Tashkent.

Asked what the Foreign Office would say to those in Uzbekistan campaigning for his return, the source added: ''We wouldn't give any guarantees on that.''