Undercover operations: UK special court sentences police for sexual relations

In at least 27 cases, British police officers have deceived women and entered into intimate relationships with them in undercover missions. According to a verdict handed down yesterday, the police force in charge also interfered with the physical integrity, privacy and political activities of those involved.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London ruled yesterday on the use of undercover officers against left-wing movements. The Metropolitan Police violated a „formidable list“ of basic human rights. The case was brought by Kate Wilson, a British citizen who alleges sexual abuse and won justice after a ten-year legal battle. „This has been a long and emotional journey, and I am happy to receive this ruling today“, the now 41-year-old activist commented to a campaign group. Her lawyers described the decision as a landmark.

In a separate hearing, the IPT will decide on further remedies, including compensation for the plaintiff and payment of court costs and legal fees. In another court, Wilson and other women had sued for damages because undercover officers entered into relationships with them that lasted up to nine years. The police had publicly apologised for this after pressure from the women concerned, and seven women finally received compensation.

At least 27 cases

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is a special court responsible for complaints against authorities with surveillance powers. Previous rulings against police forces and intelligence agencies concerned, for example, the unlawful mass surveillance by the GCHQ wiretapping centre, as made public by the revelations of Edard Snowden.

At the centre of the complaint that has now been decided was the use of the police officer Mark Kennedy, who worked under a cover identity on behalf of the Metropolitan Police in the noughties. In the process, he enticed ten women into intimate and sexual relationships that lasted up to six years. It remains unclear whether the women involved were targets or women in their circle.

Members of the National Public Order Policing Unit (NPOIU), which is responsible for undercover investigations, exploited at least 26 other women in this way despite a formal ban on the practice. The court affirmed that the police leaders with whom undercover police officers communicate on a daily basis were informed about this. However, they had looked the other way according to the motto „Don’t ask, don’t tell“.

Violations of the Human Rights Convention

Because the sexual relations primarily involved women, the 156-page judgement found sexist discrimination under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, other fundamental and human rights guaranteed by the Convention were violated, including the right to live free from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3). The police had failed to put in place safeguards against such out-of-control operations.

In a statement, Wilson had also criticised the „misogyny and institutional sexism of the police“. The powers for police surveillance of demonstrations would have to be fundamentally reconsidered.

This position is confirmed in the judgement. According to the it, the police measures interfered with Wilson’s right to freedom of expression and association (Articles 10 and 11 ECHR). The right to a private and family life (Article 8) was also violated.

The Metropolitan Police admitted some of the allegations, but denied any discrimination against women and violation of the right to freedom of association. The court, however, made it clear that it was not only suspicious groups that were infiltrated. In many cases, police officers were also infiltrated into a „legitimate organisation“ in order to get inside the perimeter of suspects and thereby obtain valuable information. The judge’s ruling criticises this as „fishing expeditions“.

Further investigation

Activist Wilson was spied on by a total of six undercover investigators from the NPOIU. This first came to light as part of the judge-led Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), which was set up in 2015 to investigate a steady stream of allegations against the unit. It is an independent public enquiry that is supposed to investigate all the misconduct of the police unit since its establishment in 1968 and hears around 250 witnesses.

According to media reports, the NPOIU had infiltrated around 1,000 groups, the judges confirmed this and revealed the cover names of some of the at least 169 undercover investigators. Among other things, the police officers used names of deceased children as a legend, which led to horror among their parents after it became known. In at least two cases, the police officers fathered children in their sexual relations.

The UCPI is limited to undercover policing in England and Wales. However, the NPOIU agents were acting abroad as well, as it was revealed in the inquiry that they took part in the demonstration known as „Bloody Sunday“ in Derry, Ireland, in 1972. The government in London had always denied this. There were also operations at the EU summit in Ireland in 2004 and at the G8 summit in Scotland in 2005.

Questionable operations also in Germany

Members of the NPOIU operated all over the world, with Kennedy alone in eleven European countries and the USA, as far as is known. From 2005 onwards, he travelled to Berlin several times, took part in protests there and also committed crimes. In addition to Kennedy, a dozen other British undercover investigators or informants were sent to the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007.

The ongoing UCPI investigation is likely to continue until 2025. But what Kennedy did in Germany is not something the British Home Office wants investigated there.

„The IPT ruled yesterday that Kennedy’s operations, and their authorisations by his police leaders, were unlawful. There therefore needs to be an investigation into the implications of that for the things he did overseas,“ Kate Wilson told netzpolitik.org.

Image: Kate Wilson in front of an ornate entrance to the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance).


Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.