A tribunal has ordered GCHQ to destroy legally privileged material found to be held by the intelligence agency relating to a former Gaddafi opponent who says he was a victim of rendition to Libya involving British agents. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) made the order in the case of Sami al-Saadi, who was forcibly transferred to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2004 with members of his family.
The IPT says it has required GCHQ to undertake to "destroy or delete" material in two documents the tribunal has found to be legally privileged "so as to render such information inaccessible to the agency in the future". The tribunal said it was important to record that, although the information was covered by privilege, it did not disclose or refer to any legal advice. The UK has already agreed to pay £2.2m to al-Saadi and his family to settle their claim that MI6 was involved in their illegal rendition.
The tribunal said that, "after careful consideration", it was satisfied no use was made by the Government of the privileged material in that legal action. The tribunal ordered that one hard copy each of the two documents should be delivered to the Interception of Communications Commissioner and retained for five years in case required for further legal proceedings or inquiries.
Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi at the Radisson Blu hotel in Tripoli
The IPT rejected assertions that privileged information was held by the intelligence agencies in the cases of eight other claimants, including another Libyan dissident, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who also alleges he was tortured by Gaddafi's regime after being rendered back to Libya via British-controlled Diego Garcia in 2004.
His civil action is due to come before the Supreme Court later this year. The Government has already admitted that the policies and procedures governing the handling of legally privileged material were unlawful for the past five years because the safeguards were not made public.
Exchanges between lawyers and their clients are entitled to a special level of legal protection. The controversy follows revelations by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden exposing the extent of online and telephone surveillance carried out by US and UK monitoring agencies.
Campaign group Reprieve says Wednesday's decision marks the first time in the IPT's 15-year history that it has upheld a complaint against the security services.
Cori Crider, a director at Reprieve and counsel to the al-Saadi and Belhaj families, said: "GCHQ spied on privileged legal communications, in a case where they were being sued by a rendition and torture victim. We are pleased that one man has finally beaten the security services in this secretive tribunal. But this kind of illegal snooping makes phone hacking look like child's play, because it rigs the whole justice game in the Government's favour."