UK Government Admits Lawyer-Client Spying Broke Rights Laws

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The UK government has admitted that safeguards meant to prevent the intelligence services from spying on private conversations between lawyers and their clients were insufficient to meet the requirements of European human rights laws.

The highly unusual admission came yesterday after a long-running legal challenge by the lawyers of two Libyan citizens and their families.

Abdul-hakim Belhaj and Fatima Boudchar were captured by MI6 and CIA spies and sent back to their homeland to be tortured by the Gaddafi regime in 2004.

Belhaj’s lawyers are suing the British government for mistreatment in a case dating back to 2012. However, they became suspicious that the government’s legal team may have had access to their emails – giving them an unfair advantage in the case.

They therefore filed another case in 2013, this time with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), alleging the UK intelligence services had eavesdropped on their communications.

Conversations between lawyers and their clients enjoy special protected status under UK law.

A government statement sent to The Guardian had the following:

“The concession the government has made today relates to the agencies’ policies and procedures governing the handling of legally privileged communications and whether they are compatible with the European convention on human rights.

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). This includes a requirement that safeguards are made sufficiently public.”

However, the government did not admit there was any “deliberate wrongdoing” on the part of the intelligence services, and claimed that their admission does not mean that the trial had been prejudiced.

However, Cori Crider, one of the lawyers for the two families, claimed that this is exactly what had happened.

“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,” she said in a statement. “Reprieve has been warning for months that the security services’ policies on lawyer-client snooping have been full of loopholes big enough to drive a bus through.”

She called for the government to undertake an urgent investigation into what went wrong and “come clean about what it’s doing to repair the damage.”

The news comes just weeks after another major embarrassment for the government as the IPT ruled that GCHQ acted unlawfully in accessing millions of private communications hoovered up by the NSA’s Prism and Upstream programs.

Rights group Privacy International is now urging those who think they might have been illegally spied on by GCHQ to get in touch and force the courts to find out for sure.

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