WASHINGTON — The former British ambassador to Uzbekistan says that over the past three years, the United States has routinely handed over dozens of low-level terrorism suspects to Uzbekistan, an authoritarian regime that systematically uses torture to obtain terrorist confessions during interrogations.
The former ambassador, Craig Murray, also contends that the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6 routinely cited information in their regular intelligence briefings that has been passed on by Uzbek authorities and was almost certainly obtained under torture.
Murray’s assertions, made in a telephone interview with the Globe and in a series of confidential memos to the British Foreign Office, raise questions about the close cooperation between the United States and war-on-terror allies such as Uzbekistan. The State Department’s annual human rights reports detail how Uzbek authorities routinely use torture to elicit confessions, allegedly burning one man on his genitals, killing another with a pair of pliers, and apparently boiling two prisoners alive.
”We should cease all cooperation with the Uzbek Security Services — they are beyond the pale,” Murray wrote in a July 2004 memo to the foreign office. The memo appeared on the website of an Uzbek democracy group and Murray confirmed for the Globe its authenticity.
US officials including CIA Director Porter Goss have contended they do not turn suspects over to countries that use torture without receiving diplomatic assurances that the suspect will not be mistreated.
A spokesman for the CIA said the agency ”does not knowingly receive any intelligence information that was alleged to have been derived from individuals who are tortured.”
Murray, however, said that the CIA’s head of mission told his deputy that the agency knew that the intelligence was probably obtained under torture but ”they didn’t see that as a problem.”
A CIA spokesman in Washington said no such meeting or conversation ever took place.
Murray, who retired early last month from the foreign service, has captivated British newspaper readers since the government launched an investigation into allegations of financial and sexual improprieties which he contends was meant to silence him. (He was eventually cleared of all charges except leaking confidential material to the press, according to a Foreign Office spokesman.)
But American newspapers have rarely written of Murray, who is now running an underfunded campaign to unseat British foreign secretary Jack Straw.
The United States greatly increased its aid to Uzbekistan in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, after US officials gained permission to use an air base there for the impending war in neighboring Afghanistan. The former Soviet republic had already waged its own war against Islamic militants, who had previously set off bombs there. But the Uzbek regime also cracked down on nonviolent Muslims, imprisoning thousands for practicing their faith outside of state-sanctioned mosques.
Murray said he first realized that torture was being used to obtain information in September 2002, when human rights groups persuaded him to meet with an elderly man who said his children had been tortured by Uzbek authorities until he signed a statement admitting a family link with Osama bin Laden. In the months that followed, Murray said, he interviewed dozens more who had been tortured into falsely confessing an association with bin Laden, or whose close relatives had been tortured.
Around October, he said, he began receiving intelligence briefs that summarized information gleaned from Uzbek authorities, alleging connections between opposition members in Uzbekistan and bin Laden.
Murray said the Uzbek government was eager to produce links between Muslim opposition in Uzbekistan and Al Qaeda to justify the flow of US military aid coming to the country and the imprisonment of thousands of people seen as disloyal to the regime.
”They wanted to exaggerate their role in the war on terror,” Murray said.
Murray said he sent his deputy to the American embassy in Tashkent to find out if US agents were using any safeguards to ensure that the information they were using from Uzbek authorities had not been obtained through torture.
He said his deputy returned to say she had met with the CIA station chief, and was told, ”Yes, it probably was obtained [under] torture, but the CIA didn’t see that as a problem,” Murray said.
The British government echoed the same sentiment, he said, at a London meeting in March 2003 to respond to numerous cables he sent expressing his concern. One official at the meeting ”gave his legal opinion that it was not illegal to obtain and to use intelligence acquired by torture,” Murray wrote in the July memo recounting his concerns. ”He said the only legal limitation on its use was that it could not be used in legal proceedings.”
Murray, 46, left the foreign service on early retirement last month after what he describes as a ruthless attempt to hound him out of his post with accusations that he drank on the job, asked for sex in exchange for visas, and improperly paid for the musical equipment of a Scottish folk band he brought to play at the embassy. He said the investigation, which came as the press published news that he was having an affair with a 23-year-old Uzbek woman, prompted him to briefly check into a metal-health facility as his marriage unraveled.
A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said that Murray was cleared of all charges relating to misconduct, but that a second investigation launched to determine if he had leaked information to the press was suspended because of his ill health, and would not be further pursued since Murray had opted to retire.
“We never use torture to obtain information for any purpose, nor would we instigate others to commit torture,” the spokesman said.