Washington Recruits a Rough Ally to Be a Jailer

NEW YORK -- 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 administration of U.S. President George W. Bush turned to Uzbekistan as a partner in fighting global terrorism. The nation granted the United States the use of a military base for fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Bush welcomed Uzbek President Islam Karimov 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 CIA 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 CIA used those two planes to ferry terror suspects in U.S. 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 CIA'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 who in some cases have alleged they were beaten and tortured while being held.

The program was created in the mid-1980s as a way for the CIA to transfer crime suspects arrested abroad to their home countries. After Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA used it to send prisoners suspected of being senior leaders of al-Qaida to several 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 CIA 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 Uzbek 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 CIA 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 CIA used Uzbekistan as a place to hold foreign terrorism suspects. During 2003 and early 2004, Murray said in an interview, "CIA flights flew to Tashkent often; usually twice a week."

In July 2004, Murray wrote a confidential memo to the British Foreign Office accusing the CIA 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. 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," Murray wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The Times.

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," Murray said in the interview. "It was as if the goal posts had moved. Their perspective had changed since Sept. 11."

A Foreign Office spokesman declined to address Murray's allegations. Last year, 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 relationship between Washington and Tashkent was formalized at a March 2002 Oval Office meeting between Bush and 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 Karimov's hand.

"It's been a great opportunity for Karimov," Salih said. "But President Bush has to also think about human rights and democracy. If he wants to have a collaboration on anti-terror matters, he should not close his eyes on other things that Uzbekistan is doing, like torture."

At a news conference last month, 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," Bush said.