David Leigh and Richard Norton-Taylor
The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, is behind a virtually unprecedented attempt to hold a British murder trial in secret, the Guardian can disclose. The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, has been asked to sign a public interest immunity certificate – a gagging order – at the request of the agency, which is responsible for spying and recruiting agents abroad. It is also involved in money laundering investigations.Wang Lam, 45, a financial trader from Hampstead, north-west London, who was arrested in Switzerland, is accused of murdering an 86-year-old recluse, Allan Chappelow, who lived in the Hampstead area. The body was discovered after £10,000 reportedly went missing from the victim’s bank account.
A secret hearing at the high court last week was adjourned until the new year. The Crown Prosecution Service will then apply for the entire trial, or large parts of it, to be held with press and public excluded. The CPS refused yesterday to confirm the reason for its rare application, and the Home Office refused to comment on reports that the defendant had acted as an informant.
The CPS said the move was “in the interests of justice” and the Home Office said it would not talk about PII certificates. Although MI6 is answerable to the foreign secretary, Smith was asked to sign the PII certificate because the Home Office is responsible for the conduct of criminal trials in the UK. Lam is defended by Kirsty Brimelow and Geoffrey Robertson QC, who came to prominence in the 1992 Matrix Churchill case, in which PII certificates were involved. In that case defendants were cleared of charges of arms dealing with Iraq, after disclosure of their links with British intelligence.
PII certificates are generally used to conceal evidence involving national security, intelligence methods, or undercover informants. It is extremely unusual to attempt to keep secret an entire trial, especially when it is not a spy case.
The trial judge can refuse to accept the reasons for a PII certificate, if the defence asks for the trial to take place in public in the normal way. It is also open to the media to challenge such a secrecy order.
Lawyers involved in the case said yesterday that they were forbidden by the court to discuss any aspect of the secrecy application. Lam has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, burglary and deception. He was arrested near Zug, Switzerland, by Swiss police, on an international warrant.
Chappelow was known in the Hampstead area as a reclusive figure, whose house in a wealthy area was neglected, with an overgrown garden. It was reported earlier that bank officials had alerted police after apparently unusual transactions on his account. Ten thousand pounds was reported to have been transferred by someone claiming to be him. Cheques, mail and a mobile phone were also allegedly missing from his house.