Supreme court overturns anonymity orders for four terror suspects

Orders giving anonymity to four terror suspects who appealed against asset-freezing orders made by the Treasury were overturned today by the supreme court in a move greeted by observers as a resounding victory for press freedom.
The justices held that there "never was the slightest justification" for such orders, and said "the courts below appeared to have granted anonymity orders without any very prolonged consideration and without explaining their thinking".
Orders were justifiable in an extreme case, such as when a party or witness in proceedings or their family might be in peril of their lives or safety as a result of being identified. But none of the terror suspects could show that identifying them would put anyone at risk of physical violence, the court said.
Its decision came in a judgment following an application by Guardian News and Media, supported by Times Newspapers, Associated Press, Bloomberg news, Index on Censorship, Dow Jones, the Economist, Article 19 and the Media Legal Defence Initiative, in a case in which five men were appealing against orders made by the Treasury freezing their financial assets and restricting their lifestyles.
All five were given anonymity. One, initially referred to as G, was later named as Mohammed al-Ghabra after having been identified through a Bank of England press release.
When the case reached the supreme court the media applied to be able to name the other four – three brothers referred to as A, K and M, and a man referred to as HAY.
M and HAY objected to the application, saying they should remain anonymous because identifying them would have a serious effect on their private lives and their families, and expose them to suspicion to which they would be unable to respond. HAY also claimed that identifying him would expose relatives in Egypt, his home country, to the risk of retributive action by the authorities there.
Lawyers representing the other two were unable to say where they were or to contact them.
The supreme court said there was a growing tendency for courts to make anonymity orders, which had become a "deeply ingrained" habit.
It also expressed concern that courts were being misled, saying that HAY – Hani El Sayed Sabei Youssef – was named in a Bank of England press release in 2005, had featured in press articles and had sued the Home Office for wrongful imprisonment in an openly reported case.
Lord Rodger, who gave the judgment, said: "HAY is also known as Dr Hani al-Seba'i and under that name he acts as the director of the al-Maqrizi Centre for Historical Studies in London. He gives statements to the press and often broadcasts on al-Jazeera.
"Despite this, there is no evidence that any members of his family, whether in this country or in Egypt, have been adversely affected in any way. These matters, which must have been well known to Mr Youssef, should not have been concealed from the courts.
"It is plain that there never was the slightest justification for making an anonymity order in his case. It must be set aside."
The widespread and growing phenomenon of giving anonymity to litigants should stop, Rodger said.
Stories about identifiable individuals "are simply much more attractive to readers than stories about unidentified people. It is just human nature," he said.
"A report of the proceedings challenging the freezing orders which did not reveal the identities of the appellants would be disembodied. Certainly, readers would be less interested and, realising that, editors would tend to give the report a lower priority. In that way informed debate about freezing orders would suffer.
"On the other hand, if newspapers can identify the people concerned, they may be able to give a more vivid and compelling account which will stimulate discussion about the use of freezing orders and their impact on the communities in which the individuals live. Concealing their identities simply casts a shadow over entire communities."
While allowing the media to identify the men could lead to "outrageously hostile" coverage about them, that was "not sufficient reason for curtailing that freedom" for all members of the press.
Solicitor Mark Stephens, of law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, who represented the media, said: "This case was brought because judges were being hoodwinked into covering up the names of litigants and defendants and had forgotten the importance of free speech.
"Government lawyers too were at fault in supporting and justifying unjustified claims to secrecy."
The decision should also mean that the ban on the naming of the children in the Edlington torture attack case should be lifted, he said, adding: "It is overwhelmingly in the public interest that the press should investigate and explain the background to this brutal and tragic crime without being inhibited by orders requiring that the family must remain anonymous.
"No court henceforth should grant an anonymity order in a significant case unless it is satisfied that the litigant, if identified, would be in serious danger of physical attack.
"Indeed, it was a complete outrage that doctors and social workers in that case should have also sought anonymity, until now, such has been the expectation of anonymity of even third parties."

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