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Concern over GCHQ’s Unlawful Interception of Communications

PEN South Africa is deeply concerned that the communications of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), as well as other human rights groups, have been intercepted. The LRC is representing the families of the miners killed in a police massacre at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana in 2012. This is a severe breach of privacy, which has been ruled unlawful by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).

Janet Love, National Director of the Legal Resources Centre, said:

“The Legal Resources Centre is deeply concerned to learn that communications of our organisation have been subject to unlawful interception by GCHQ. As a public interest law firm, our communications are self-evidently confidential, and we consider this to be a serious breach of the rights of our organisation and the individuals concerned. We can no longer accept the conduct of the intelligence services acting under such a pernicious veil of secrecy, and we will be taking immediate action to try to establish more information. We urge the South African and British governments to cooperate with us in this regard. We are particularly grateful for Liberty’s efforts in spearheading this litigation and making it possible for this information to be brought to light.”

Read the full press release from Liberty below and read the report by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, that rules that the interception of the LRC’s communications, as well as that of other human rights groups, was unlawful.

GCHQ intercepts communications of human rights groups

22 June 2015

GCHQ has intercepted and accessed the communications of civil liberties groups, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has revealed today.

In the proceedings brought by Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International, ACLU and a number of other national human rights organisations from around the world, the IPT has ruled that the intelligence agency acted unlawfully in the way that it handled intercepted private communications of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) in South Africa. The Tribunal found that GCHQ breached its own internal – and secret – policies on the interception, examination and retention of e-mails from the two organisations, violating their rights under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

The secretive IPT has previously held the law allowing mass interception of “external communications” compatible with human rights principles. In reaching this conclusion it took into account internal GCHQ guidance that has not been made public. Liberty and the other NGOs have taken their challenge to the UK’s mass interception practices on to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In its ruling today the Tribunal found “technical” breaches of GCHQ’s secret internal procedures. No explanation is given as to why these two human rights groups were the targets of GCHQ’s attentions. Both groups play an important role in holding their respective governments to account – a dangerous job, which in some cases runs the risk of reprisals from the State:

Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

  • In 2014 the EIPR were forced to register under the NGO Law – which gives the State tight controls over their activities, fundraising and staffing decisions.
  • Last year, Yara Sallam, EIPR’s Transitional Justice Officer, was sentenced to two years imprisonment under a draconian anti-protest law which seeks to criminalise all forms of peaceful assembly. Once released she will be subject to police surveillance for a further two years. Before trial Ms Sallam was repeatedly questioned on the nature of her and EIPR’s work.

Legal Resources Centre

  • The LRC challenged some of the most oppressive aspects of apartheid and its lawyers played an integral role in drafting South Africa’s new constitution. Currently it is representing the families of the miners killed in a police massacre at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana in 2012.
  • LRC is also fighting for rights of tenancy for ‘labour tenants’ who work on farms in exchange for the right to occupy and use a portion of the land; to secure transport to get children to school safely; and is currently taking the South African government to court for failing to assist the family of a South African man who is being detained in an Egyptian prison.

The Tribunal ruled that, by not following its own policies, GCHQ failed to act “in accordance with the law”, a requirement of Article 8. There was therefore a breach of the right to respect for privacy.

Determinations were not made in favour of Liberty and the other claimants. This does not mean that their communications have not been intercepted and examined – only that, if GCHQ did so, the IPT consider it lawful.

James Welch, Legal Director for Liberty, said:

“Last year it was revealed that GCHQ were eavesdropping on sacrosanct lawyer-client conversations. Now we learn they’ve been spying on human rights groups. What kind of signal are British authorities sending to despotic regimes and those who risk their lives to challenge them all over the world? Who is being casual with human life now?”

Janet Love, National Director of the Legal Resources Centre, said:

“The Legal Resources Centre is deeply concerned to learn that communications of our organisation have been subject to unlawful interception by GCHQ. As a public interest law firm, our communications are self-evidently confidential, and we consider this to be a serious breach of the rights of our organisation and the individuals concerned. We can no longer accept the conduct of the intelligence services acting under such a pernicious veil of secrecy, and we will be taking immediate action to try to establish more information. We urge the South African and British governments to cooperate with us in this regard. We are particularly grateful for Liberty’s efforts in spearheading this litigation and making it possible for this information to be brought to light.”

Contact: Liberty Press Office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128

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