New York Times
May 1, 2005
Seven months before Sept. 11, 2001, the State Department issued a human rights report on Uzbekistan. It was a litany of horrors.
The police repeatedly tortured prisoners, State Department officials wrote, noting that the most common techniques were "beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask." Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers. Two prisoners were boiled to death, the groups reported. The February 2001 State Department report stated bluntly, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights."
Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, however, the Bush administration turned to Uzbekistan as a partner in fighting global terrorism. The nation, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, granted the United States the use of a military base for fighting the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan. President Bush welcomed President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to the White House, and the United States has given Uzbekistan more than $500 million for border control and other security measures.
Now there is growing evidence that the United States has sent terror suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation, even as Uzbekistan's treatment of its own prisoners continues to earn it admonishments from around the world, including from the State Department.
The so-called rendition program, under which the Central Intelligence Agency transfers terrorism suspects to foreign countries to be held and interrogated, has linked the United States to other countries with poor human rights records. But the turnabout in relations with Uzbekistan is particularly sharp. Before Sept. 11, 2001, there was little high-level contact between Washington and Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, beyond the United States' criticism.
Uzbekistan's role as a surrogate jailer for the United States was confirmed by a half-dozen current and former intelligence officials working in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the prisoner transfer program, but an intelligence official estimated that the number of terrorism suspects sent by the United States to Tashkent was in the dozens.
There is other evidence of the United States' reliance on Uzbekistan in the program. On Sept. 21, 2003, two American-registered airplanes - a Gulfstream jet and a Boeing 737 - landed at the international airport in Tashkent, according to flight logs obtained by The New York Times.
Although the precise purpose of those flights is not known, over a span of about three years, from late 2001 until early this year, the C.I.A. used those two planes to ferry terror suspects in American custody to countries around the world for questioning, according to interviews with former and current intelligence officials and flight logs showing the movements of the planes. On the day the planes landed in Tashkent, the Gulfstream had taken off from Baghdad, while the 737 had departed from the Czech Republic, the logs show.
The logs show at least seven flights were made to Uzbekistan by those planes from early 2002 to late 2003, but the records are incomplete.
Details of the C.I.A.'s prisoner transfer program have emerged in recent months from a handful of former detainees who have been released, primarily from prisons in Egypt and Afghanistan, and in some cases have alleged they were beaten and tortured while being held.
The program was created in the mid-1980's as a way for the C.I.A. to transfer crime suspects arrested abroad to their home countries. After Sept. 11, the C.I.A. used it to send prisoners suspected of being senior leaders of Al Qaeda to a half-dozen countries for detention. American intelligence officials estimate that the United States has transferred 100 to 150 suspects to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
A senior C.I.A. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not discuss whether the United States had sent prisoners to Uzbekistan or anywhere else. But he said: "The United States does not engage in or condone torture. It does not send people anywhere to be tortured. And it does not knowingly receive information derived from torture."
Ilkhom Zakirov, a spokesman for the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry in Tashkent, also declined to comment on whether Uzbekistan accepted terror suspects from the United States. He declined to address the accusations from human rights groups. But human rights activists say that because Uzbekistan's record is well known, it raises questions about why the C.I.A. would send suspects there.
"If you talk to anyone there, Uzbeks know that torture is used - it's common even in run-of-the-mill criminal cases," said Allison Gill, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who is working inside Uzbekistan. "Anyone in the United States or Europe who does not know the extent of the torture problem in Uzbekistan is being willfully ignorant."
Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said he learned during his posting to Tashkent that the C.I.A. used Uzbekistan as a place to hold foreign terrorism suspects. During 2003 and early 2004, Mr. Murray said in an interview, "C.I.A. flights flew to Tashkent often, usually twice a week."
In July 2004, Mr. Murray wrote a confidential memo to the British Foreign Office accusing the C.I.A. of violating the United Nations' Prohibition Against Torture. He urged his colleagues to stop using intelligence gleaned in Uzbekistan from terrorism suspects because it had been elicited through torture and other coercive means. Mr. Murray said he knew about the practice through his own investigation and interviews with scores of people who claimed to have been brutally treated inside Uzbekistan's jails.
"We should cease all cooperation with the Uzbek security services - they are beyond the pale," Mr. Murray wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The Times.
Mr. Murray, who has previously spoken publicly about prisoner transfers to Uzbekistan, said his superiors in London were furious with his questions, and he was told that the intelligence gleaned in Uzbekistan could still be used by British officials, even if it was elicited by torture, as long as the mistreatment was not at the hands of British interrogators. "I was astonished," Mr. Murray said in an interview. "It was as if the goal posts had moved. Their perspective had changed since Sept. 11."
A Foreign Office spokesman declined to address Mr. Murray's allegations. Last year, Mr. Murray resigned from the Foreign Office, which had investigated accusations that he mismanaged the embassy in Tashkent. An inquiry into those allegations was closed without any disciplinary action being taken against him.
The strategic partnership between Washington and Tashkent, based initially on the Americans' use of Uzbekistan's military base, was formalized at a March 2002 Oval Office meeting between President Bush and President Karimov. Muhammad Salih, the leader of Uzbekistan's pro-democracy Erk Democratic Party, who is living in exile in Germany, said the relationship had strengthened Mr. Karimov's hand.
"It's been a great opportunity for Karimov," Mr. Salih said. "But President Bush has to also think about human rights and democracy. If he wants to have a collaboration on antiterror matters, he should not close his eyes on other things that Uzbekistan is doing, like torture."
At a news conference last month, President Bush was asked what Uzbekistan could do in interrogating a suspect that the United States could not.
"We seek assurances that nobody will be tortured when we render a person back to their home country," Mr. Bush said.
The State Department and human rights groups have continued to report on human rights abuses against Uzbeks in prison.
The State Department's latest human rights report on Uzbekistan, issued in February, said: "Torture was common in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts." In addition, the State Department report noted that in 2003 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture "concluded that torture or similar ill-treatment was systematic."
Amnesty International and other groups have documented specific cases. In the summer of 2002, Amnesty International reported, Fatima Mukhadirova, a 62-year-old Tashkent shopkeeper, was sentenced to six years of hard labor after denouncing the government for the death of her son, Muzafar Avozov, in a Tashkent prison.
An independent examination of photographs of the body, conducted by the University of Glasgow, showed that Mr. Avozov died after being immersed in boiling water, human rights groups reported. The examination said his head had been beaten and his fingernails removed.
Human rights activists pressed for Ms. Mukhadirova's release. She was freed shortly before a planned visit by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in February 2004.
Human rights activists say that the United States has a difficult balancing act to maintain in its dealings with Uzbekistan.
"The relationship between the U.S. and Uzbekistan is problematic," Ms. Gill of Human Rights Watch said. "It can be useful that the U.S. is powerful enough to push for certain concessions. That being said, the U.S. should not be saying that Karimov is a partner, is an ally, is a friend. The U.S. should send the message that Uzbekistan won't be considered to be a good ally of the United States unless it respects human rights at home."
The delicate diplomatic balance played out in the early spring of 2004, after a series of suicide bombings in Tashkent killed 47 people, many of them Uzbek police officers. The government cracked down against people on religious grounds, setting off international condemnation.
Three months later, despite the urgings of the Uzbek foreign minister, Sodik Safoyev, the State Department said it would cut $18 million in military and economic aid to Uzbekistan because of its failure to improve its human rights record.
But the next month, on Aug. 12, 2004, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, visited Tashkent. He met with President Karimov and other officials, and he announced that the Pentagon would provide an additional $21 million to help Uzbekistan in its campaign to remove its stockpile of biological weapons.
General Myers said the United States had "benefited greatly from our partnership and strategic relationship with Uzbekistan."
While he noted that there were genuine concerns about Uzbekistan's human rights record, General Myers said: "In my view, we shouldn't let any single issue drive a relationship with any single country. It doesn't seem to be good policy to me."
Souad Mekhennet contributed reporting from Frankfurt for this article, and Stephen Grey from London.