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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Home Office security breach at terror court

Home Office security breach at terror court

Secret documents containing intelligence reports and details of highly sensitive diplomatic negotiations have been mistakenly released by the Home Office to a suspected terrorist’s solicitor, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.

In a grave error which could undermine one of the government’s key counter-terrorism policies, more than 100 pages of secret documents were handed to Gareth Peirce, the human rights lawyer, who is representing an Ethiopian terror suspect who can only be identified by the letters ‘XX’.

The pages were accidentally left in a censored version of the Home Office’s case against XX, and should only have been disclosed to a special category of barrister who has been security vetted by MI5.

It can also be revealed that a similar mistake was made by Home Office lawyers last month in the deportation cases of two Pakistani students who were arrested during a terror raid in north-west England last year, but who were released without charge.

The latest error came during the Home Office’s preparations for a case at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) where the Ethiopian was opposing a bid by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, to deport him from Britain.

Robin Tam QC, for the Home Secretary, told last week’s court hearing that “inadvertent disclosures have been made by the Secretary of State” and that the mistake had been “disappointing”.

Mr Justice Mitting, the SIAC chairman, told Mr Tam: “This is becoming a habit.”

Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said: “This is an extraordinary and potentially very damaging error in its own right. But to have this happen twice is inexplicable.

“Ministers must be asleep on the job if they didn’t tighten procedures the first time this happened.”

The 100 pages of top secret documents, which the suspect and his solicitor are not normally allowed to see, are thought to include intelligence information on XX’s activities and communiqués between the Foreign Office and the Ethiopian government.

The Home Office’s security failure could undermine its own case against XX.

Foreign governments may also be less willing to co-operate with Britain on similar counter-terrorism agreements in the future if there is a risk that diplomatic communications will be accidentally released.

The true impact of the mistake remains unclear because the SIAC held hearings on the inadvertent disclosures in private, barring the Press and public. Mr Justice Mitting refused an application by The Sunday Telegraph to allow access to the court.

He also ordered that the whole of the Home Office’s case should be heard in private. The terrorism accusations against XX have not been disclosed.

The Home Office has also been ordered to present the SIAC with an explanation of the errors which led to the inadvertent disclosures being made.

The Commission went on to discuss whether XX could be deported to Addis Ababa under a “memorandum of understanding” agreed with the Ethiopian government.

Britain is unable to deport terrorist suspects to Ethiopia without the memoranda because the Human Rights Act prevents anyone being sent to a country with a poor human rights record.

Julia Hall, an expert on counter-terrorism issues for the human rights group Amnesty International, said: “This is one of a series of hits against Government policy that, when taken together, show this to be a failed experiment.

“The best thing the Government can do is acknowledge that it needs to abandon seeking memorandum of understanding with governments who cannot be trusted, and stop sending people back to countries where they face the risk of torture.”

A spokeswoman for the Ethiopian embassy in London said their diplomats were aware of the disclosures but declined to comment when asked whether it would affect diplomatic relations.


The real scandal here is not the disclosure of sensitive material. But instead, the secret nature of the defendant not being informed of the case against him, and being tried in a secret court.

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