Intelligence officers working for or on behalf of MI5 are allowed to commit serious crimes, such as murder and torture, in pursuit of intelligence, a court has ruled.
The UK Court of Appeal ruled that the intelligence agency can authorise agents to participate in serious crimes in the UK, because of the need to “protect national security”.
The Court of Appeal judges ruled that the secret policy which allows this does not put MI5 “above the law”.
Four human rights organisations brought a challenge against the policy, which they say provides agents with a so-called ‘licence to kill’ and effectively “grants immunity to agents and their handlers”.
Privacy International, Reprieve, The Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Pat Finucane Centre are challenging the policy, which has been in place since at least the 1990s.
The barrister acting on behalf of the four groups had previously claimed that “there are no limits to what crimes can be authorised, at least on the partial version of the policy that is currently public".
‘Not above the law’
However, the Court of Appeal judges concluded that, as the guidance on handling informants specifies that authorisation to commit serious crimes can only be given “where the authorising officer is satisfied that the potential harm to the public interest from criminal activity is outweighed by the benefit to the public interest derived from the anticipated information the agent may provide and that the benefit is proportionate to the activity in question.”
They also said that there is no immunity from prosecution, meaning the agency is not above the law.
In a statement after the ruling, director of Reprieve, Maya Foa, said: "We will seek permission to appeal this decision.
"The idea that the Government can authorise undercover agents to commit the most serious crimes, including torture and murder, is deeply troubling and must be challenged."
Programme director and legal officer at Privacy International, Ilia Siatitsa, said: "The Court of Appeal dismissed our concerns that the regime under which MI5 have been deploying informants for decades created a situation of de facto immunity due to the lack of transparency and oversight.
"Intelligence agencies should never operate in secret without an appropriate legal framework, safeguards and oversight when deploying such intrusive and potentially dangerous surveillance tactics."