Lawmakers blast UK plan for secret court hearings

AP News
Posted: Apr 03, 2012 7:01 PM
Lawmakers blast UK plan for secret court hearings

Britain's government can't justify plans to hold some court hearings and inquests in secret to safeguard the country's intelligence agencies and their ties to foreign spy services, legislators said Wednesday.

In a report, Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights _ a panel of lawmakers from the House of Commons and House of Lords _ criticized proposed new laws which would grant ministers powers to order some civil cases to be held in private, and to prevent sensitive evidence from being aired publicly.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke put forward the plans after a series of legal tangles related to the role of Britain's spy agencies in pursuing suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Intelligence cooperation with the United States was jeopardized in 2010 after a senior British judge ordered the release of a previously secret summary of CIA documents on the treatment of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.

Clarke told the committee in an evidence session last month that the case had prompted "real concern about whether we are going to have ... full-hearted cooperation with the Americans."

At the time, officials in the U.S. complained that the disclosure breached long-standing conventions that nations don't disclose intelligence shared by their allies.

Under Clarke's plans, similar intelligence material could in the future be handled by court-appointed legal advocates and not shared with defendants, claimants or the public.

Legislators said in their report that the proposal "cannot in our view be considered to be consistent with the rule of law."

Clarke's proposals also suggest some entire cases could be heard in private.

The plan was put forward after Britain chose in 2010 to pay millions of pounds (dollars) in settlements to 16 former Guantanamo Bay detainees who alleged U.K. complicity in their harsh treatment overseas, rather than contest the allegations in court.

At the time, the government made no admission of guilt but said it had agreed to a deal because it could not afford to have more than 100 intelligence officials tied up with a costly and lengthy series of lawsuits.

In addition, intelligence officials often had to decline to testify in cases because they "cannot give evidence in open court about their sources, their techniques and their secret knowledge," Clarke said in a statement Wednesday responding to the report.

"This means that there is a compelling case for changing the current rules which stop judges considering any sensitive intelligence evidence at all, even where the case hinges on it," he said.

Under the present system, "even where a case has no merit, the government is forced to pay out vast sums of taxpayers' money," in settlements, Clarke said.

Critics insist it isn't acceptable for ministers to decide when entire court hearings can be held in secret. Current provisions already allow the government to apply to a judge to have some specific evidence heard in private, they say.

Clarke had based the proposals "on vague predictions about the likelihood of more cases being brought in future in which intelligence material will be relevant, and spurious assertions about the catastrophic consequences of information being wrongly disclosed," the lawmakers said in their report.

Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the proposed new laws alongside a judge-led inquiry tasked with examining allegations of British wrongdoing in its attempt to halt terrorists.

"David Cameron has long promised to get to the bottom of serious allegations of complicity in human rights abuses by U.K. officials," said Tara Lyle, a policy adviser with Amnesty International U.K. "Instead the government is proposing new laws that would actually throw a cloak of secrecy around these cases."