Court documents reveal that British spy agencies can target lawyer-client communications

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LONDON — British spies are allowed to intercept communications between lawyers and their clients, which are generally protected by strict rules of confidentiality, according to previously secret documents published Thursday.

As part of an ongoing legal action, the MI5, MI6 and GCHQ intelligence services have disclosed their guidelines for snooping on lawyers. All three allow lawyers' communications to be intercepted in some circumstances. Rules for GCHQ staff say "you may, in principle, target the communications of lawyers," but adds "you must give careful consideration to necessity and proportionality."

The information was disclosed in court documents after a request from lawyers for two Libyan men who accuse British spies of complicity in their detention and rendition to their homeland a decade ago.

Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi have brought a case to Britain's Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which deals with complaints against the intelligence services. The men say British spies infringed their right to a fair trial by intercepting privileged communications.

The intelligence agencies say their guidelines prevent their lawyers from seeing material about cases in which they are involved.

But legal charity Reprieve, which represents the Libyans, said those procedures were only put in place recently and are too lax.

"It's now clear the intelligence agencies have been eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations for years," said Cori Crider, a director of Reprieve and a lawyer for the Libyans and their families. "Today's question is not whether, but how much, they have rigged the game in their favor in the ongoing court case over torture."

Al-Saadi and his family accepted 2.2 million pounds ($3.5 million) from the British government in 2012 to settle a claim that the U.K. approved his 2004 rendition to Moammar Gadhafi's Libya, where he was imprisoned and tortured. The lawsuit by Belhaj is continuing.

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