Amnesty International has called for an inquiry into why UK intelligence agencies have been "spying on human rights organisations" after it was revealed that the security agency GCHQ had illegally retained communications it had intercepted from Amnesty.
In 2013, a number of NGOs, including Amnesty, Liberty and the US-based American Civil Liberties Union, brought a total of five claims against various government agencies and departments in the London-based Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The NGOs claimed that their private communications had been illegally or disproportionately solicited, intercepted, stored or transmitted.
A judgment on the five claims was published on 22 June by the tribunal.
Although it found there had been no unlawful conduct in four of the five cases, it ruled that information gathered legally from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights had been held for longer than permitted and that GCHQ had not followed its internal policies for selecting which communications intercepted from the South African Legal Resources Centre it would examine.
But in an email sent to Amnesty yesterday, Sir Michael Burton, president of the tribunal, said it wanted to "apologise for and correct an error in its determination of 22 June 2015".
The email said that although it had found a breach in respect of "a small number of documents" obtained from the EIPR, that breach was in fact in relation to the use of documents intercepted from Amnesty.
Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, said: "The revelation that the UK government has been spying on Amnesty International highlights the gross inadequacies in the UK’s surveillance legislation. If it hadn’t stored our communications for longer than it was allowed to, we would never even have known. What’s worse, this would have been considered perfectly lawful.
"It’s outrageous that what has often been presented as the domain of despotic rulers has been done on British soil, by the British government."
A statement from Amnesty said it was "calling for an independent inquiry into how and why a UK intelligence agency has been spying on human rights organisations".
The organisation hoped to challenge the legality of the UK’s mass surveillance programme in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in the autumn, a spokeswoman said.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: "The IPT has confirmed that any interception by GCHQ in these cases was undertaken lawfully and proportionately; however, technical errors were identified. GCHQ takes procedure very seriously. It is working to rectify the technical errors identified by this case and constantly reviews its processes to identify and make improvements."
The tribunal judgment – which is yet to be updated to reflect this error – concludes: "The tribunal is concerned that steps should be taken to ensure that neither of the breaches of procedure referred to in this determination occurs again. For the avoidance of doubt, the tribunal makes it clear that it will be making a closed report to the Prime Minister."
Number 10 Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment.