Surveillance: UK government trying to place itself above the law

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“Of course, governments all over the world would love to keep court findings of their illegal activity behind closed doors, but that’s not how open justice works.” – Rachel Logan

The UK government is arguing the law should be ignored after having been caught out breaking it, Amnesty International UK said today, following the latest development in a historic court case that has uncovered serious illegality in the UK surveillance programme.

Lawyers for the government appeared at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal today to argue that despite having accepted that their regime for the interception of legally-privileged material was unlawful, the court should not let those who have had their confidential communications illegally handled know that they have been victims of human rights violations, in what Amnesty says is a clear breach of the law which obliges the Tribunal to do so.

Today’s attempt by the government to keep its wrongdoings away from the victims’ sight came as the latest development in an ongoing legal claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal against the government brought by the Libyan rendition victim Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Amnesty. The claimants had argued that the regime for the interception, obtaining, analysis and use of legally privileged material was unlawful. This was finally acknowledged by the government in February.

Following the government’s concession, the hearing today was set to determine what remedies should be given to the claimants in case they had been subjected to the unlawful surveillance. Whether or not the claimants have had their legally-privileged communications unlawfully surveilled is a decision the Tribunal will consider in secret hearings from which they are already excluded. If the government succeeds, the outcome of that determination will now also be secret and Amnesty and the other claimants will not be informed whether or not their privileged communications have been unlawfully intercepted.

Such secret decisions would not only be in breach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act governing surveillance, but would also breach the fundamental requirements of both domestic and international law, which specifies that the victims of unlawful acts including human rights violations be recognised as such.

Throughout this case the government has tried to say that their activities can’t be scrutinised and even now, after they’ve been forced to admit they were acting unlawfully, they want to place themselves above the law.

Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s Legal Programme Director, speaking from the IPT hearing.

“No-one disputes the importance of properly-targeted surveillance to combat terrorist activity – in fact states have a duty to protect their people. But today’s case is the latest example of the government riding roughshod over the rights of the very people they’re supposed to protect.

“Of course, governments all over the world would love to keep court findings of their illegal activity behind closed doors, but that’s not how open justice works.

“The UK government simply must not be allowed to change the rules because they’ve been caught out breaking them.”