Rights group warns against immunity for UK’s ‘terrorist crimes’

Rights group warns against immunity for UK’s ‘terrorist crimes’

A human rights charity and former Tory cabinet minister have warned that ministers and spies could be given immunity from accusations of aiding crimes overseas under a new national security law that will be debated by MPs next week.

The Home Office was told that the powers proposed were far too slack and would damage the UK's moral authority to condemn atrocities such as the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The concerns centre on a change to the Serious Crime Act, which was passed in 2007 and made it an offence to do anything in the UK to aid or assist a crime overseas, such as aiding an unlawful assassination or sending information to be used in a torture interrogation.

This would be disapplied in a clause in the National Security Bill, which is due to be read in the House of Commons on Monday, where necessary for the proper exercise of any function of MI 5, MI 6, GCHQ or the armed forces.

Reprieve, an international human rights charity, said it would grant immunity to ministers or officials who provide information to foreign partners that leads to someone being tortured or unlawfully killed in a drone strike.

There were concerns that the move would restrict victims' ability to seek civil damages in the courts.

Maya Foa, Joint Executive Director of Reprieve said it was unthinkable to grant ministers and officials the power to go above the ordinary criminal law and even embolden leaders to commit serious crimes if they are not caught on the orders of Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman.

The campaign against the move was supported by former cabinet minister and civil liberties campaigner David Davis.

Davis said that clause 23 was far too slack in the powers it gives ministers, and was not about giving less contentious national security powers to spy agencies, such as allowing them to place bugs in foreign embassies.

He said that this bill was so loosely drafted that it could let ministers off the hook if they authorised crimes like murder and torture from the safety of their desks in Whitehall.

I urge colleagues to take action that is appropriate to our aims and civilised standards. The National Security Bill was announced last month in Queen's speech, with the intention to support Britain's spy agencies and help them protect the United Kingdom. It will be debated when MPs return from recess next Monday.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the amendment to the Serious Crime Act will remove the risk of people facing criminal liability where they are carrying out authorised lawful activities in good faith and following proper procedure.

The government believes that it is not fair to assume that the liability for this action is to sit with an individual UK intelligence officer or member of the armed forces who is acting with legitimate intentions.