An interesting story on Channel 4 TV news today: four London police officers are being prosecuted for beating up Babar Ahmad in 2003 while arresting him on suspicion of terrorism charges. And it turns out that the key evidence for the prosecution comes not from Ahmad’s complaint, nor from photographs of his injuries, but from the product of an eavesdropping device, more commonly known as a bug, planted in his home by the UK Security Service, MI5.
It’s interesting in itself that MI5 has released this information for court proceedings against Met counter-terrorism officers. I shall resist speculating now, but shall be watching developments with interest.
But the point I want to make quickly today is about the use of intercept material as legal evidence in UK courts. This can potentially be crucial for lawyers when speaking to their clients, journalists who wish to protect their sources, polticial activists, and those who simply wish to protect their inherent right to privacy as the encroaching electronic surveillance state continues to swell.
It can also be potentially useful information for MPs talking to their constituents. Indeed, returning to the years-long case of Babar Ahmad, there was a media furore in 2008 when it was revealed that the Met had authorised the bugging of his conversations with his MP Sadiq Khan during prison visits.
And who was the commanding officer who authorised this? Step forward former Met Counter Terrorism supremo, Andy Hayman, that much esteemed defender of British civil liberties who recently suggested “dawn raids” and “snatch squads ” be used against political activists.
Unlike most other western countries, the UK does not allow the use of telephone intercept as evidence in a court of law. As I’ve written before, it’s a hangover from the cold war spying game. MI5 has traditionally seen phone taps as a source of intelligence, not evidence, despite the fact that much of their work is notionally more evidentially based in the 21st century. It also still remains a subject of debate and a fiercely fought reargard action by the spies themselves, who claim telecheck is a “sensitive technique”.
As if we don’t all know that our phones can be bugged.….
However, eavesdropping devices that are planted in your property — your home, your office, even your car — can indeed produce evidence that can be used against you in a court of law. All this requires a Home Office Warrant (HOW) to make it legal, but Home Secretaries are traditionally reluctant to refuse a request in the interests of “national security”. Moreover, if the owner of the property agrees to a bug, even without a HOW, they can be legally used. So if you live in rented accommodation, befriend your landlord!
Not a lot of people know all that — but we should.