Economic espionage and potential threats to UK investors in platinum mining company Lonmin are thought to be key to a global spying scandal threatening to become a diplomatic row.
The UK’s investigatory powers tribunal – responsible for investigating abuses by British intelligence agencies – ruled yesterday that the country’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had violated its secret internal regulations.
The ruling was made after the tribunal found that GCHQ had illegally intercepted e-mails of staff at South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre, which represented the families of 34 miners killed at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012.
GCHQ was taken to the tribunal by Amnesty International and UK rights groups Privacy International and Liberty.
The three approached the tribunal after becoming suspicious that GCHQ was spying on the LRC and nine other international human rights groups.
The tribunal found that GCHQ illegally spied on the LRC and the Egyptian-based Initiative for Personal Rights .
But while it ruled against the UK government, the public will never know what information it obtained from the LRC.
Brian Dube, spokesman for the state security minister, said the government was aware of the tribunal’s findings.
“We are awaiting information and will engage the LRC,” he said.
University of Johannesburg international law expert Professor Hennie Strydom said the probable motive for the spying could be financial.
While he could not see how the information obtained would be useful to GCHQ, he could see its potential value to others.
“The key now is who those others are. It’s vital to know what GCHQ did with the information.”
A South African intelligence agent said the biggest motivation could be related to business activities
“That kind of information is important, especially if you look at the potential impact the Farlam Commission of Inquiry’s report and findings in terms of potentially devastating economical losses for Lonmin and its shareholders,” the intelligence agent said.
Avani Singh, an attorney with the LRC’s constitutional litigation unit, said: “We were not privy to the information provided by GCHQ, which included the reasons for the interception.
“We don’t know what they intercepted so we cannot say (why they were interested in what we are doing). We are involvedin a number of constitutional matters.”
He said the LRC was considering its next step.
“We need to know who authorised this and why. We are considering requesting diplomatic intervention from the government.”