In a landmark admission, the U.K. government conceded on Wednesday that British intelligence agencies have been illegally spying on private communications between lawyers and clients for the past five years.
According to the Guardian, the government's admission that it violated human rights law is "a severe embarrassment."
"In view of recent IPT judgments, we acknowledge that the policies adopted since [January] 2010 have not fully met the requirements of the ECHR, specifically article 8 (right to privacy)," a government spokesperson stated on Wednesday. "This includes a requirement that safeguards are made sufficiently public."
The announcement follows several recent legal developments in the high-profile torture case of Libyan political activist Abdelhakim Belhadj, one of the surveillance targets.
Belhadj is suing several British intelligence agencies—including MI-5 and MI-6—for their alleged role, along with the CIA, in his and his wife's rendition, imprisonment, and torture by then-Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi's forces, from 2004 to 2010. His wife, Fatima Boudchar, was pregnant at the time of their kidnapping.
In October, Britain's Court of Appeal ruled that Belhadj's case must be heard, despite attempts by the U.K. government to throw the case out on the grounds that it might damage the country's diplomatic relations with the U.S.
A month later, the government was forced to disclose secret GCHQ, MI-6, and MI-5 policies advising intelligence staff to "target the communications of lawyers" and use legally privileged material "just like any other item of intelligence." "The government has been caught red-handed. The security agencies have been illegally intercepting privileged material and are continuing to do so—this could mean they’ve been spying on the very people challenging them in court."
— Rachel Logan, Amnesty UK
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On Wednesday, the government admitted its human rights violations with a caveat. "It does not mean that there was any deliberate wrongdoing on their part of the security and intelligence agencies, which have always taken their obligations to protect legally privileged material extremely seriously," the spokesperson stated. "Nor does it mean that any of the agencies’ activities have prejudiced or in any way resulted in an abuse of process in any civil or criminal proceedings."
Cori Crider, director of legal charity Reprieve and one of Belhadj's lawyers, said in response to the government's statement, "By allowing the intelligence agencies free rein to spy on communications between lawyers and their clients, the Government has endangered the fundamental British right to a fair trial... they have violated a right that is centuries old in British common law.
"Worryingly, it looks very much like they have collected the private lawyer-client communications of two victims of rendition and torture, and possibly misused them," Crider continued. "While the government says there was no 'deliberate' collection of material, it’s abundantly clear that private material was collected and may well have been passed on to lawyers or ministers involved" in Belhadj's case.
Rachel Logan, legal director at Amnesty U.K., added, "We are talking about nothing less than the violation of a fundamental principle of the rule of law—that communications between a lawyer and their client must be confidential."
"The government has been caught red-handed. The security agencies have been illegally intercepting privileged material and are continuing to do so—this could mean they’ve been spying on the very people challenging them in court," Logan continued.
Despite its confession on Wednesday, the U.K. government refused to confirm or deny whether the agencies named in the lawsuit had conspired to kidnap and render Belhadj and Boudchar.
"Only time will tell how badly their case was tainted," Crider continued. "But right now, the Government needs urgently to investigate how things went wrong and come clean about what it is doing to repair the damage."