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Why Spycops victims walked out from the police inquiry

United Kingdom
Human Rights

There were astonishing scenes at the Undercover Policing Inquiry on Wednesday when victims and their lawyers walked out of court. Counsel for the victims, Phillippa Kaufmann QC, told the judge in charge, Sir John Mitting, that he has made it impossible for them to participate.

Since undercover officer Mark Kennedy was exposed by activists in 2010 there has been a constant slew of revelations about Britain's political secret police. The units were set up in 1968, with about ten officers deployed at a time to live for years as activists with the groups they spied upon.

‘I'm sorry to say this, but instead we have the usual white upper-middle-class elderly gentleman whose life experiences are a million miles away from those who were spied upon’

They mostly targeted left wing groups, including trade union and peace campaigns, before expanding their remit to cover animal rights, environmentalism and the far right. They also spied on many grieving families seeking 'justice for their loved ones, such as Stephen Lawrence and Jean Charles de Menezes. They spied on democratically elected public figures, not only in unions but in the Labour Party, Green Party and Liberal Party.

Most of the exposed officers had long-term relationships with women they spied on, something the Metropolitan Police has conceded is 'an abuse of police power and a violation of the women's human rights,' including the right to freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Video: Jenny Jones, Green Party member of the House of Lords, in Chamber demanding answers and action from the British government.

In 2014 then Home Secretary Theresa May announced a full scale public inquiry. Four years on,it still hasn't begun. It has been beset by police intransigence, then further delayed when ill health forced the Chair, Lord Pitchford, to step down. He was replaced by Sir John Mitting.

Mitting's background is as a judge in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a secret court dealing with state surveillance cases. It doesn't say how many cases it hears, but it's known to be in the thousands, and there is only one known case where it found in favour of the citizen against the government.

Mitting is also a member of the Garrick Club, an elite London institution that prohibits women from joining. This alarmed spycops campaigners – the strategic abuse of women by officers puts institutional sexism at the heart of this inquiry. Imagine if the Stephen Lawrence inquiry had been presided over by a judge from a club that refused to have black members.

The inquiry – originally projected to finish and publish a report in 2018 – is still at the preliminary stage, holding hearings to decide its structure. It has a list of more than 1,000 groups that were spied on and infiltrated since the Special Demonstration Squad was formed in 1968. They are refusing to publish it.

The release of the names of the targeted groups and the cover names used by officers are the essential prerequisites to an effective inquiry. Once we have these, the groups can be contacted, people can come forward with their memories of what those officers did undercover. Until then, we only have the police’s version of events. This is an inquiry into police wrongdoing; they are the last people we should be trusting.

Since taking over, Mitting has had more hearings in secret than in public. His main focus has been requests for anonymity from ex-officers. His process is to ask officers to apply, get another officer to do an 'objective' risk assessment then say what he is inclined to do. Only then does he issue redacted versions of the police statements and call in victims to have a say. Once that pantomime is over, he then awards anonymity as intended.

He cites their human right to a private life, ignoring the fact that the officers breached exactly that right for others – as well as the rights to freedom of assembly and association, as well as freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment – and the victims have a right to know. What other miscreants get this privilege? Which bank robber or shoplifter was granted anonymity because being named might embarrass their family?

At the last hearing, whistleblower officer Peter Francis told Mitting that he and his colleagues were professional liars, and that officers applying for anonymity were spinning a line, exaggerating dangers so they could avoid accountability. Francis pointed to the public gallery where former undercover drugs officer Neil Woods was sitting:

‘He personally has led to more imprisonment of individuals totalling approximately 1,000 years for his deployment from 1993 all the way to 2007… That one man has led to more imprisonment than the entire Special Demonstration Squad from 1968 to 2008. He is sitting here in his own name. I am sure he doesn’t mind saying he’s actually brought his wife along today. He walks in society freely and yet there is hundreds upon hundreds of people who would like to pay that man back… I have great, huge, concerns that these professional liars are spinning you.’

Phillippa Kaufmann​ QC addresses the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the walk out. Credit: Lauren Marina for @SoapboxEN

Phillippa Kaufmann QC warned Mitting that the hearings appeared increasingly pointless. Instead of heeding her, Mitting went further. He declared he would present 'a blank wall of silence' to questions about numerous officers – not only granting anonymity but refusing to say why.

The final straw came when Mitting said that if an officer got married as a young man and is still married to the same person, we can presume the officer was incapable of having deceived women into relationships or done anything else wrong while undercover, and so he will withhold their name.

There were yelps of incredulity from the public gallery. Mitting said he 'may be a bit old fashioned' in thinking as he does. It isn’t old fashioned, it's delusional. There has never been a time when men didn't lie to their wives, or wives didn't feel trapped into a marriage with a man who behaved immorally. Nonetheless, Mitting has stuck to believing this utter codswallop and granted anonymity on that basis.

We've had enough. Something must change. We came back to court on Wednesday and Kaufmann gave an extraordinary display. She told Mitting:

‘We are not prepared actively to participate in a process where the presence of our clients is pure window dressing, lacking all substance, lacking all meaning and which would achieve absolutely nothing other than lending this process the legitimacy that it doesn't have and doesn't deserve.’

Campaign group Police Spies Out of Lives hand out flyers outside the court. Credit: Lauren Marina for @SoapboxEN

She decried the inquiry's having Mitting as sole arbiter, failing to have a panel of ‘individuals who have a proper informed experiential understanding of discrimination both on grounds of race and sex, two issues that lie absolutely at the heart of this inquiry. I'm sorry to say this, but instead we have the usual white upper-middle-class elderly gentleman whose life experiences are a million miles away from those who were spied upon.’

With that, Kaufmann led her team and the packed public gallery out of court.

Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was killed in a racist attack and was also surveilled because of her family's campaign for justice, voiced her support for the walkout, accusing Mitting of turning what should be a transparent, accountable and public hearing into an inquiry cloaked in secrecy and anonymity,’ and has threatened to withdraw unless a credible panel is installed alongside or instead of Mitting.

We are not abandoning the inquiry. We are desperate to participate, but it must be thorough and credible. But while Mitting is handing out all-you-can-eat anonymity to abusive spycops, there is no point in us being there.

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance is an alliance of people spied on by Britain's secret police.

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