UK officials online for immunity to help crimes abroad, critics say

Ministers and spies would be immune from charges of aiding overseas crimes under a new national security law to be debated by lawmakers next week, a human rights charity and a former Conservative minister have warned. .

The Interior Ministry was told that the proposed powers were “too weak” and would diminish the UK’s moral authority to condemn atrocities such as the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Concerns are centered on a change to the Serious Crimes Act, which was passed in 2007 and made it a crime to do anything in the UK to encourage or aid a crime abroad, such as aiding and abetting an unlawful murder. or send information for use in an interrogation of torture.

Under a clause in the National Security Bill, which has its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday, it will not apply when “it is necessary for the proper exercise of any function” of MI5, MI6, GCHQ or the armed forces.

Reprieve, an international human rights charity, said it would effectively grant immunity to ministers or officials who provide information to foreign partners leading to someone being illegally tortured or killed in a drone attack.

Concern was also raised that the measure would restrict the ability of victims to claim civil damages in court.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s joint executive director, said it was an unthinkable power to grant ministers and officials “risky to put them above ordinary criminal law” and could even encourage leaders to “commit serious crimes thinking that they can do it with effective impunity. ” ”.

Foa said the enactment of clause 23 of the National Security Bill “would destroy the UK’s moral legitimacy for condemning similar atrocities by autocratic states” following the assassination of Khashoggi, a journalist whose agencies US intelligence believe he was assassinated by order of Saudi ruler Mohammed. bin Salman.

The campaign against the measure also had the support of former cabinet minister and civil liberties activist David Davis.

Davis said clause 23 was “too weak in the powers it gives to ministers” and was not about granting less controversial national security powers to intelligence agencies, such as allowing them to place mistakes in embassies. foreigners.

He added: “This bill is being drafted so loosely that it could allow ministers to develop if they authorize crimes such as murder and torture from the security of their desks in Whitehall.

“I urge colleagues to limit it to actions appropriate to our civilized goals and standards.”

The national security bill was announced in the Queen’s speech last month, with the intention of supporting British intelligence agencies and “helping them protect the UK”. It will be debated when MPs return from recess next Monday.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said: “The amendment to the Serious Crimes Act will only eliminate the risk of people facing criminal liability when carrying out authorized licit activities that are deemed necessary, in good faith and following the procedure. appropriate.

“In short, the government believes it is not fair to expect responsibility for this action to be with a UK intelligence officer or a member of the armed forces acting with wholly legitimate intentions.”

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