The Independent – A UK diplomat says Britain is part of a worldwide torture plot. Is he telling the truth?

The Independent – A UK diplomat says Britain is part of a worldwide torture plot. Is he telling the truth? (by Raymond Whitaker)

Craig Murray is a very undiplomatic diplomat. Former ambassadors are supposed to be tending their flowers in Home Counties gardens, but this one is not. He is, instead, making extraordinary allegations, the most damaging of which is that Britain is using information obtained from torture to imprison people indefinitely. So convinced is he of the truth of this and other claims that he plans to stand against his former employer, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, at the general election.

Not for this man the emollient, languorous language normally associated with his profession. Our former ambassador in Uzbekistan is nothing if not forthright. “Unreliable information, obtained under torture in countries where it is routine, can be used against people in Britain,” he told The Independent on Sunday in his first interview since leaving the Foreign Office last week with a ?315,000 payoff. “On the basis of such information, they can be detained in Belmarsh prison or in future be put under house arrest for life. It impacts here in the UK.”

The departure of Mr Murray, 46, from the diplomatic service is the culmination of an extraordinary two-year battle with his masters. His public denunciations of the Uzbek regime, and private complaints at American and British support for it, led to a confrontation in which he was accused of drunkenness and trading visas for sex with local women, and told to “resign or be sacked”. The charges were leaked; when his marriage broke up over his relationship with a 23-year-old Uzbek hairdresser, Nadira Alieva, who now lives with him, that got out too. Now he plans to expose Britain’s “hypocrisy” in the “war on terror”.

“We have abandoned the notion of a foreign policy based on the rule of international law, in favour of one which says might is right, that there is one superpower and we’ll be its best friend,” he says. “I want to put these issues in front of the voters.”

The ex-envoy’s stand is almost the only sign of dissent in official circles over Britain’s role as America’s closest partner in the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq. Not only has the Government departed from European human rights law to detain foreign terror suspects without trial, it is implicated in what critics call a “web of illegality” spun by the Bush administration. The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad created a scandal, but evidence continues to emerge that this was simply the worst example of a pattern of mistreatment that extends from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to Bagram in Afghanistan and other facilities around the world, some undisclosed, in which hundreds of suspects are held in legal limbo.

The latest revelations concern the practice of “extraordinary rendition”. Using unmarked planes, the CIA is delivering prisoners to regimes which practise torture and then making use of the information produced. “There is increasing evidence that America is shipping people round the world to be tortured,” Mr Murray says. “I saw it in Uzbekistan because I happened to be there, but it’s also happening in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

Britain is unapologetic about making use of such information. The Foreign Office line is that while it totally condemns torture, it cannot rule out using any reliable intelligence, wherever it comes from, if it will save lives. But it is the reliability of the information that Mr Murray questions. In a scathing final memo to the Foreign Office, he wrote: “We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek intelligence services, via the US. We should stop. It is bad information anyway. Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the US and UK to believe, that they and we are fighting the same war against terror … we are selling our souls for dross.”

Eight months later, he says: “What really seems to have angered them is that I was disputing the quality of the intelligence they were receiving. I began saying this at the time Britain was putting forward its dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They were keen on intelligence that exaggerated the threat.” He adds that he has “a good deal of experience” in intelligence analysis. “During the first Gulf war, I worked full-time on analysing Iraq and its WMD.”

Mr Murray was Britain’s youngest ambassador when he was appointed to Tashkent in mid-2002, and it did not take him long to realise the nature of the regime. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the old Communist Party boss, Islam Karimov, remains in charge of a Stalinist dictatorship which treats all devout Muslims as potential subversives, and has been known to boil prisoners alive. A couple of weeks after he arrived, the new ambassador attended a political trial, at which he met an old man. “Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family’s links with Bin Laden,” he told the Foreign Office. “Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do.”

After three months he said publicly that Uzbekistan was “not a functioning democracy”. The major political parties were banned, and there were between 7,000 and 10,000 political and religious prisoners. The Americans – who were pouring money, warplanes and military personnel into Uzbekistan, valuing its position near central Asia’s huge reserves of oil and gas – were upset, but in public the Foreign Office backed him.

Behind the scenes, however, he was getting into a worsening dispute with his employers over the question of torture. In October or November 2002, he says, he saw intelligence about an Uzbek dissident, his cell and its connections with Bin Laden. “I could see from the codes that it had gone from Uzbek intelligence to the CIA, and was then issued by MI6 as part of intelligence sharing. I remembered the old man, and a light went on.” He sent his deputy to check with the CIA head of station in Tashkent whether the agency had any safeguards against receiving information obtained under torture. “He told her, yes, it probably is obtained under torture, but the CIA doesn’t see that as a problem.”

Mr Murray says he was probably naive. “I honestly thought that it was only a matter of pointing out to London how this material was sourced, and they wouldn’t have any truck with it.” But he heard nothing from the Government, which was preoccupied with the rush to war in Iraq. After several more complaints, he was summoned to London for a meeting at the Foreign Office in March 2003. He was told the information was useful and not illegal to obtain, although it could not be used in a court of law. His line manager later told him he was “unpatriotic”.

He continued to speak out about human rights in Uzbekistan until the Foreign Office accusations against him – later withdrawn – and the subsequent breakdown of his health, which kept him in London for most of the second half of 2003. When he returned to Tashkent, he says, he was determined to “keep my head down”. But after the Abu Ghraib revelations last year, which led the Foreign Office to remind its diplomats that they should report torture by allies, he discovered that a meeting in London, which he had not been told about or asked to attend, had decided to continue receiving Uzbek intelligence material.

“This is morally, legally and practically wrong,” he wrote in his final memo. “It exposes as hypocritical our post-Abu Ghraib pronouncements and undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture [if] they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results.” When this memo was leaked to the press, the Foreign Office argued that he could no longer stay in Tashkent.

Now he is free to pursue the issue as a private citizen, Mr Murray says: “We argue that we don’t carry out or instigate torture ourselves, but if information from it comes our way, we won’t refuse it. But in criminal law, when a known thief asks you to buy a stolen TV for ?10, it is no defence to say that I didn’t ask him to steal it and I wasn’t there when he stole it – I just bought the stolen goods.”