Mon 12 October, 2004
By Peter Graff
LONDON (Reuters) - British spies "lap up" information gathered through torture, hurting Britain's ability to fight for human rights, the ambassador to Uzbekistan has said in a leaked memo obtained by Reuters.
In the memo, ambassador Craig Murray complained to superiors in London that British officials were "selling their souls for dross" -- accepting bogus confessions tortured out of detainees and designed to trick Washington and London into supporting Uzbekistan's harsh policies and giving it military aid.
Reuters obtained the secret July memo on Monday from a source who requested anonymity. Excerpts from it also appeared in the Financial Times on Monday.
"We receive intelligence obtained under torture from the Uzbek Security Services, via the U.S. We should stop," Murray wrote. "This is morally, legally and practically wrong.
The practice "fatally undermines our moral standing. It obviates my efforts to get the Uzbek government to stop torture; they are fully aware our intelligence community laps up the results."
A spokeswoman for the foreign office declined to comment on the memo itself but said: "Britain never uses torture to get information."
But she added: "We recognise there is a need for intelligence on counterterrorism to protect the safety of British nationals. It would be irresponsible to rule this information out of hand."
Uzbekistan, an ex-Soviet republic in central Asia, has become an ally of the United States since the September 11 attacks, offering air bases for warplanes flying over Afghanistan. It denies it systematically practises torture.
Its government has battled Islamist guerrillas, some of whom were based in Afghanistan. But human rights groups say Uzbekistan has exaggerated the threat to win Western support and justify draconian policies, including torture.
Murray said he had raised his concern in London and was briefed by Foreign Office officials that it was "not illegal for Britain to obtain and use intelligence obtained through torture" as long as the information was not used as evidence in trials.
He was also briefed by an official from British intelligence who told him that spies found "some of the material very useful indeed with a direct bearing on the war on terror".
But Murray said the material was disinformation designed to trick the United States and Britain into giving aid.
"Tortured dupes are forced to sign up to confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the U.S. and the UK to believe: that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.
"I repeat that this material is useless -- we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful," he wrote.
"The aim is to convince the West that the Uzbeks are a vital cog against a common foe, that they should keep the assistance, especially military assistance, coming, and they should mute the international criticism on human rights and economic reform."
Murray said Britain's own spy agency lacked the knowledge to evaluate the material, which it r eceived from the American CIA.
"MI6 have no operative within a thousand miles of me and certainly no expertise that can come close to my own in making this assessment," he wrote.
He described meeting an old man who was forced to watch his sons being tortured until he signed a confession admitting links to Osama bin Laden. "Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with bin Laden as I do."
Britain has never denied that its spies use information that may have been obtained through torture abroad. In fact, the government has argued that it should be allowed to use such information in tribunals determining whether foreign terrorism suspects can be held without charge.
The High Court upheld that practice, which is now before a panel of the House of Lords sitting as Britain's highest court.
The Foreign Office spokeswoman said Britain's policy toward Uzbekistan is "political engagement". "We are pushing Uzbekistan to fully implement a plan of action to stop torture."