In a landmark ruling in January, the Supreme Court held that former foreign secretary Jack Straw and Mark Allen, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, as well as key government officials would have to appear before judges and defend claims that they participated in the 2004 kidnapping of Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his wife, thereby facilitating their torture at the hands of Libyan security services.
The case would not have got this far without the tireless work of human rights defenders, including the lawyers from the law firm Leigh Day and the human rights organisation Reprieve, who have supported the case.
Such work often relies on confidential interviews and the protection of sensitive information, and an absolutely water tight lawyer-client trust. This trust is protected through assurances that information shared will be kept safe - particularly from government officials and security services who are themselves the subjects of such abuse claims.
Naomi Colvin, Beneficiary Case Director at Courage Foundation, said ''The use of Schedule 7 powers to acquire passwords is a very worrying development. NGOs have sources and confidential or privileged information to protect, just like journalists do. Not only does this mirror the deterioration of the situation for device security at the US border, it is part and parcel of a concerted assault on the right to encrypt in the UK.''
If we are to maintain systems of accountability in the world, governments and security services cannot be above the law. When there is evidence of abuse, this evidence needs to be preserved, protected and properly treated.
In the same way, at CAGE, we guarantee our clients confidentiality. When our International Director Muhammad Rabbani was stopped under Schedule 7 on his way home from taking crucial testimony from a victim of torture, he naturally refused to hand over the passcodes to his devices. Even more so since the testimony is crucial to a case that could see US officials held accountable for torture.
But instead of aligning themselves with the rule of law, security services detained Rabbani even when he had committed no crime, demanded that he hand over his passwords, and when he didn’t, they arrested him. This is a clear abuse of power.
CAGE’s stance is that if there is no accountability for crimes such as torture, we will continue to see evidence of political violence, and downward spirals will continue. To bring this violence to an end, the officials responsible for torture need to be held accountable. For this reason human rights defenders should be entitled to keep their passcodes private - in order to protect their clients and the cases CAGE holds. This is a key principle of our organisation, and Rabbani is willing to risk jail time for it.