Secret Justice

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Alarming links between British spy agencies and torture, unlawful abductions and dealings with dictators have been exposed in recent years, prompting investigations and major court cases. But now, in a historic move that could erode centuries-old principles of open justice, the government wants to limit sensitive material being disclosed publicly – enabling complicity in human rights abuses to be kept secret.

The controversial plans are set to be included in the Justice and Security Bill, formally announced earlier this month in the Queen’s Speech. The Ministry of Justice says “common-sense” change is needed to protect national security and better equip courts to pass judgment in cases involving classified information. Because the new legislation would enable the government to present evidence to a judge without having to disclose it to the whole court, however, there are major concerns it could lead to cover-ups and put the government and other public bodies above the law.

“The simple fact is that closed courts are inherently unfair,” says Clare Algar, executive director of human rights group Reprieve. “What the government is proposing is a system in which they can use whatever evidence they like against the citizen, but the citizen is unable to challenge or even to see that evidence. This is unacceptable in any circumstances.

"Our current system is working well, and judges have always been extremely deferential to the government on matters of national security. Yet it appears that our security services are attempting to undermine our justice system because they are unwilling to be held accountable in a court of law."

Justice secretary Ken Clarke argues that the government will have to reveal “damaging” secret security information or settle out of court unless ministers can order some cases to be conducted behind closed doors. Clarke says that Britain’s intelligence-sharing relationship with America was dented after a ruling in 2010 forcing ministers to reveal a document showing British complicity in the torture of West London resident Binyam Mohamed, who was held at US-run prison Guantanamo Bay over alleged links to terror groups.

But last month the government’s claims that US authorities have withdrawn or reduced the amount of intelligence it shares with Britain were attacked by the joint parliamentary committee on human rights as being based on “spurious assertions”. And former officers from the US Central Intelligence Agency told the Daily Mail the US would “never hold back” information from British spies if it was “important to their domestic security.”

Prominent critics argue that the reform, far from being motivated by a desire to protect national security, has more to do with preventing politically damaging details from being made public.

“We should not sacrifice Britain’s open and transparent justice system simply to protect politicians and their officials from embarrassment,” said former director of public prosecutions Ken MacDonald in February. “After a decade in which we have seen our politicians and officials caught up in the woeful abuses of the War on Terror, the last thing the government should be seeking is to sweep all of this under the carpet. However, that is exactly what their disastrous secret justice proposals are likely to do.”

Macdonald’s scathing remarks took on added significance last month, when it emerged spy agency MI6 had tried to avoid having to appear in open court by offering a payment of £1 million to Abdelhakim Belhadj, a Libyan dissident it helped hand over to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2004 as part of America’s extraordinary rendition programme. Belhadj and his pregnant wife were abducted by US authorities in Bangkok after a tip-off from MI6. They were forced on a plane to Libya where they were mistreated by Gaddafi’s secret police – and are now suing Sir Mark Allen, an ex-senior member of MI6, for “complicity in torture" and "misfeasance in public office."

If the Bill were to become law by the time Belhadj’s case makes it to a British courtroom, a government minister could sign off a “closed material procedure” (CMP) certificate vetoing sensitive information about MI6’s role being publicly disclosed. CMPs were first established by Labour in 1997 to be used mainly in a small number of immigration cases concerning the deportation of terror suspects. In 2010, for instance, alleged extremists based in Manchester and Liverpool were accused of having links to al-Qaida – but in subsequent deportation hearings CMPs were applied to keep evidence against them secret.

Crucially, aside from cases involving terror suspects and torture, the newly proposed Bill has far wider ramifications. It would apply across all civil court cases or inquests and could potentially be used not only to protect the security services – but also to halt sensitive information involving the police, the army and other public bodies from being revealed. (The definition of “sensitive” information is broad, encompassing the disclosure of anything deemed contrary to the interests of national security, the international relations of the United Kingdom, or the detection and prevention of crime.)

Inquest, a charity that provides support to bereaved people affected by contentious deaths, such as deaths in custody and police shootings, believes the government’s proposals “seriously undermine fundamental legal principles of natural justice and open justice.” The group, whose members number lawyers involved in high-profile cases including the Hillsborough disaster and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, has warned that the Bill, if legislated, would “fuel fears that the state is attempting to deliberately prevent information about its own culpability in deaths becoming publicly known.”

“It is deeply regrettable that the government is pursuing proposals to extend the use of closed material procedures,” says Helen Shaw, Inquest’s co-director. “It is abundantly clear that there is no need for such sweeping changes to the law.”

But not all elements of the Bill have been subject to such intense criticism. While many argue it would be particularly detrimental to the accountability of the secret services in the courtroom, others point out that at the same time, in stark contrast, it also contains a proposal to enhance their accountability to parliament. Currently spy agencies MI6, MI5 and GCHQ are overseen by the intelligence and security committee (ISC), an executive-appointed group of nine parliamentarians, which reports directly to the prime minister. The government wants to improve the ISC by having it report formally to parliament for the first time.

“I see this as a measure of making them more accountable,” says Anthony Glees, an expert in security and counter-terrorism at the University of Buckingham. “There is a problem with accountability in our secret agencies; too much secrecy fuels speculation and it leads to a lack of responsible behaviour. But we can’t expect that they can’t have full accountability because then they wouldn’t be secret agencies.”

By enhancing parliamentary accountability while simultaneously planning to radically reduce judicial accountability, though, it is ultimately the overall impact that is of most significance, according to Hugh Bochel, professor of public policy at the University of Lincoln.

“The proposals give greater parliamentary oversight but they reduce the amount of judicial oversight and to some extent civil society and the media,” Bochel says, adding that this is a “negative step.”

“What you need is overlap between all those different forms of oversight and that should give you a good view as you can and accountability in all sorts of different ways.”

Campaigners point out that the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment of its plans for secret court proceedings warned of a “reduction in confidence in court processes” and a “higher risk of potential security breaches,” costing up to £11 million every year. This was compounded last month by condemnation from the joint parliamentary committee on human rights, chaired by Dr Hywel Francis, which said in a report that the court plans were a “radical departure from our longstanding traditions of open justice” and “inherently unfair.”

“The government has now tested the parliamentary waters and its proposal to expand secret evidence has been condemned as unfair and unjustified,” says Angela Patrick, director of human rights policy at campaign group Justice. “Proceeding in the face of these conclusions would undermine the coalition’s commitment to civil liberties and could damage public confidence in the justice system irreparably.”

Mass Surveillance in Former Soviet Republics

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Western firms that sold dictatorships in the Middle East mass-surveillance technology have been subject to intense scrutiny over the past year. But now a new exposé by journalists in Sweden has shed light on how the same tools are being used closer to home — in ex-Soviet republics across Europe and Central Asia, whose leaders were seemingly shaken by the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Last week an investigative documentary shown on Swedish public service broadcaster SVT revealed in fascinating depth the extent to which Stockholm-based telecommunications firm Teliasonera is linked to spy agencies in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Georgia, facilitating crackdowns on dissident politicians and independent journalists.

Citing a multitude of sources — including official government documents and whistle-blower testimony — SVT’s reporters documented how companies owned by Teliasonera had allowed “black box” probes to be fitted within their telecommunications networks. The black boxes allow security services and police to monitor, in real-time and without any judicial oversight, all communications passing through, including texts, Internet traffic and phone calls. (Similar so-called “monitoring centers” were set up in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria with the help of European companies.)

SVT found some citizens who said they had been targeted for the strangest, most banal reasons. Several Azerbaijanis, for instance, said they had been summoned by police and subject to interrogation after phone records showed they had voted for a country other than their own during the televised Eurovision Song Contest in 2009. One man said he was told by officials working for Azerbaijan’s security agency that he was a “traitor” because he had voted for a song performed by musicians from Armenia, a neighbor with whom Azerbaijan has historically had tense relations.

Other cases were far more serious and sinister. Documents obtained by SVT showed an Azerbaijani reporter had his phone tapped after he published a piece about being beaten at the hands of government security agents while covering a story. He was subsequently stabbed in a savage attack and had to flee to France, where he has since taken up a case against the security agency and Teliasonera-owned Azercell in the European Court of Justice.

SVT also reported that the black-box surveillance was used in Belarus to track down, arrest, and prosecute protesters who attended an anti-government protest rally following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election.

Similar stories were reported in relation to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Georgia. In Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, sources said security agencies had even been given their own offices within the telecom providers’ headquarters to snoop on communications. One whistle-blower who worked for Teliasonera told the reporters, “The Arab Spring prompted the regimes to tighten their surveillance... There’s no limit to how much wiretapping is done, none at all.”

In response to the documentary, a spokeswoman for Teliasonera said that “police tap into information from telecom networks to fight crime” and “the rules for how far their authority goes are different from country to country.” When pressed about complicity in human rights violations, she looked shaky, refusing to comment on why security agencies were being given access to telecom buildings in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

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