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25th Feb 2021

European rights watchdog queries UK on Snowden affair

  • Jagland wants answers from UK over Snowden affair. (Photo: Council of Europe)

Secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland of the Strasbourg-based human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, has asked the UK to explain its recent actions in the US snooping scandal, exposed by former security official Edward Snowden.

In a letter addressed to UK home secretary Theresa May on Wednesday (21 August), Jagland asks how its actions are compatible with Britain's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Specifically, Jagland wants to know how the convention squares with the detention of a Guardian reporter’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow airport and the forced destruction of the paper’s hard drives containing Snowden's leaked documents.

“These measures, if confirmed, may have a potentially chilling effect on journalists' freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” said Jagland.

“I would therefore be grateful to you if you could provide information on these reports and comment on the compatibility of the measures taken with the UK's obligations under the convention,” he added.

Miranda, a partner of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, was in transit from Germany to Brazil at London’s Heathrow airport on Sunday when he was detained for nine hours by the Metropolitan Police.

All his electronic equipment was confiscated.

He was also forced to reveal passwords under the threat of being jailed.

An obscure British terrorism act was invoked to detain Miranda, which strips away the normal rights of suspects and journalists in transit at the airport.

The paper in July had also been forced to wipe clean hard drives after Downing Street sent its cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood to warn the Guardian over Snowden’s documents.

The US on Tuesday distanced itself from the UK over the destruction of the hard drives.

Washington said it would not engage in a similar move, even to protect national security, despite imposing a 35-year sentence on US army soldier Bradley Manning for leaking thousands of government documents to the online publisher Wikileaks.

A strong reaction also came from Moscow.

Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, said in a statement on Wednesday that: "The moves taken by the UK authorities in relation with the Guardian newspaper office are discordant with the statements of the British side on their adherence to universal human rights standards, including that of the freedom of media, the rights of journalists and the protection of private life.”

He described Britain’s action as part of a “worrisome ongoing tendency for the abuse of fundamental human rights and freedoms."

For its part, the EU says it cannot comment on the application of national security legislation.

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