(RINF) – In a major victory for civil rights activists, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the body which considers complaints about UK government surveillance, has held GCHQ guilty of illegal surveillance and monitoring of privileged attorney-client communications. Coming down heavily on the agency, the Tribunal has also directed it to destroy all material it collected as a result.
The messages to be destroyed are communications belonging to Libya rendition victim, Sami-al-Saadi. Saadi, a fierce Gaddafi critic, was captured in a joint CIA-MI6 ‘rendition’ operation in 2004 in Libya, along with his wife and children between the ages of 6 and 12.
This is the first time in the tribunal’s fifteen-year long history that it has upheld a complaint against the government’s snooping arm, and also the first time that it has ordered a surveillance agency to destroy surveillance material.
Civil rights crusaders have, for years, been alleging that the GCHQ has been indulging in illegal snooping.
Mr Justice Burton who chaired the tribunal, directed the GCHQ to give an undertaking that parts of the documents must be “destroyed or deleted to render such information inaccessible in the future.” The GCHQ has also been asked to submit a secret report within 14 days confirming the destruction of these documents. A hard copy of the documents would be handed to the Commissioner for Interception of Communications within 7 days, where it will be kept safe for five years in the event of any further legal proceedings in the matter.
The case, which was originally a compensation suit against Jack Straw the then foreign secretary and the Foreign office, was filed by Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj, another staunch Gaddafi opponent, for their role in their rendition and subsequent torture in Libya in 2004. The court refused to either grant compensation, on the grounds that the collected information had not been shared with lawyers working on the main case, and was of no significant value. It also declined their request of handing over the material to them, saying it could offer clear insight into the way the GCHQ sources information and could help genuine surveillance targets to take counter-measures.
While the ruling in this case was certainly a cause for celebration, the ruling in 8 other cases concerning Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his families, left a sour taste in the mouth. The tribunal gave a ‘no determination’ ruling in these cases, thereby meaning that either surveillance had not been carried out or it was not illegal.
Reprieve, a Human Rights organisation which assisted Saadi in the legal proceedings, expressed satisfaction at the court’s verdict. Cori Crider, Reprieve Director, said he was happy that one man had been able to beat the Security Services into admitting their role in snooping on people illegally. Saadi also expressed pleasure at becoming the first man to bring the security agency to book. Belhaj, on the other hand, was dismayed by the court’s verdict in his case.
While the verdict is certainly a step in the right direction, clearly, much more needs to be done to bring transparency and accountability to the GCHQ’s surveillance programs. Hopefully, greater public scrutiny and pressure from human rights groups would force the government to do what’s necessary.