A FIRM accused of torturing Iraqi prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad has been hired by the Scottish government to carry out the nation's next census.

Granting CACI (UK) - a subsidiary of the firm accused of torture - the £18.5 million contract has not only badly wounded the SNP government's claims of being more ethical than Labour and putting human rights at the top of its agenda, but has also led to fears personal data on millions of Scots collected by the company might be sifted by the US government given the close relationship between the Bush administration and the CACI head office in Arlington, Virginia.

Scotland's leading human rights campaigners have damned the appointment, accusing the SNP of selling its soul, and raised the spectre of a mass boycott of the census by the nation's population.

CACI's parent company in the US was one of two private US contractors hit with lawsuits from four Iraqis at the end of last month, over allegations they were tortured in Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib became notorious in late 2003 when pictures of the horrific torture and degradation of Iraqi detainees were shown around the world. In the prison, US civilian staff working for private American security companies, which specialised in carrying out interrogation work for the US military, were heavily implicated in human rights abuses against detainees.

There have been other allegations that CACI interrogators used dogs to terrify captives, placed detainees in stress positions' and encouraged soldiers to abuse prisoners. It also emerged a third of CACI staff at the prison had never received formal military interrogation training even though CACI employed almost half of all interrogators and analysts working in Abu Ghraib.

Despite demands by human rights groups in the US that CACI be barred from further contracts in Iraq, it was awarded an £8m renewal of its contract.

In June, the Scottish government also awarded a multi-million pound contract to CACI (UK) to run the census of the General Register Office of Scotland (GROS).

CACI will develop the website for online questionnaires, print paper questionnaires, and scan and process the population's responses. Households in West Edinburgh, Lewis and Harris will be the first in Scotland offered use of CACI's online census questionnaire next year as part of a rehearsal for the full census in 2011.

Two of Scotland's leading human rights campaigners savaged the SNP for appointing CACI as the nation's census-takers. Human rights lawyer John Scott said: "The Scottish government, and any government with a principled stance, should not be going near any firm with such associations, even indirectly." Scott said he believed the company would be willing to assist the US government in information gathering.

"The government is opening itself up to significant and justified protest," he said. "Ordinary members of the public could refuse to have anything to do with the census. A boycott is something to be considered. It would be a legitimate step. We cannot ignore our principles."

Aamer Anwar, another leading Scottish human rights lawyer, said: "The Scottish government was elected on a mandate that it had a human rights conscience and was different to Labour. Now it seems the Scottish government is already closing its eyes to what is going on overseas. Would we say it was OK if a firm connected to Mugabe was hired to run our census? It is unacceptable that they have been hired. This will horrify most ordinary people It is unacceptable that the Scottish government should be selling its soul to an organisation accused of torturing human beings."

Anwar added that when it came to respecting data privacy "the US government doesn't give a damn about people's rights, it'll gather data in any way possible how can we be sure that the census information will not be handed over to the US government in the interests of homeland security?"

GROS claimed CACI (UK) was not involved in defence work and was a "separate legal entity from its US parent company". It then went on to claim: "Allegations of improper conduct made against the parent company have been vehemently denied, but in any event there is no link between these allegations and the work of CACI (UK)".

CACI's proposals to run the census were accepted as they provided "the best and most competitively priced of the bids we received, delivering best value for tax-payers' money", said a GROS spokesperson. They also said the GROS would ensure "effective protection for personal information" through "independent audits of security".

The Scottish government said it would never be party to a contract with any company "convicted" of human rights abuses, and insisted it was "fundamentally committed to ethnical conduct". A government spokesman said the GROS "could not take unproven allegations into consideration".

CACI UK said that after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, "an allegation" of mistreating detainees was made against a CACI employee working for its US parent company.

"This allegation was not substantiated by any evidence or proof," CACI said, "and subsequent investigations by both CACI and the US government could not confirm it. No CACI employee was ever depicted in the shocking and disturbing photos seen in the press".

The company said "the allegation remains totally unfounded and unproven. No CACI employee has ever been charged with any wrongdoing." The firm said it would not tolerate any "illegal behaviour" by staff, and added that the firm held itself "to the highest ethical standards".