MI5's Timing Questioned in Chinese Agent Alert Amid Party Scandal

MI5's alert branding lawyer Christine Lee as a Chinese agent is being challenged in court, with claims it was a diversion from Boris Johnson's lockdown party scandal. Lee's lawyer argues the alert was unlawful, causing significant personal harm and forcing her into hiding. MI5 defends its decision on national security grounds.

Reuters | Updated: 17-06-2024 21:53 IST | Created: 17-06-2024 21:53 IST
MI5's Timing Questioned in Chinese Agent Alert Amid Party Scandal

Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 issued an alert branding a woman a Chinese agent to possibly divert attention from a COVID lockdown party scandal involving former prime minister Boris Johnson, her lawyer told a London tribunal on Monday. In January 2022, MI5 sent out an alert notice about lawyer Christine Lee, alleging she was "involved in political interference activities" in the United Kingdom on behalf of China's ruling Communist Party.

The warning was circulated to lawmakers by the House of Commons Speaker, who said MI5 had found that Lee had "facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China". Lee is now suing MI5 for unspecified damages, arguing the agency had acted unlawfully and unreasonably.

At an Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing on Monday, her lawyer Ramby de Mello read out a message sent to Lee from Barry Gardiner - a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party who said he had received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from her - in which he queried MI5's motives. Gardiner wrote "many people" believed the timing of the alert was to divert attention from Johnson's admission of an unlawful gathering at Downing Street during the first COVID lockdown.

The day before the notice was issued, Johnson had apologised to parliament for attending a "bring your own booze" gathering that had been held at his official residence. "I had never believed that the Security Services would be overtly party political in that way," said Gardiner's message, sent to Lee via a mutual friend in May 2022.

"What has been suggested to me is that the Security Services may have wished to 'pick a fight' or to 'detract attention' from something else and that we were simply collateral damage." Gardiner could not immediately be reached for comment.

IN HIDING De Mello said MI5 had no power to issue the "unprecedented" notice, which he said was factually wrong in asserting Lee had carried out political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

He said the UFWD would not engage her as an agent because she was a devout Christian, saying the impact of the alert, which had attracted worldwide interest, had been "catastrophic", leading to threats of death and rape, and other abusive emails. Her lawyers said in court documents that Lee, who watched proceedings from the public gallery, had been forced to spend most of her time in hiding, and had had to adopt a fake name and to disguise her appearance with a new hairstyle.

On its website, MI5 states there is a legal duty on its director general not to act to further the interests of any political party. "Our role is to protect democracy, not to influence its course," the website says. "The government of the day cannot instruct MI5 to perform any action for party political reasons."

In its written submissions, the agency's lawyers said the alert (IA) had been issued on the grounds of national security to protect parliamentary democracy from foreign interference. "The respondent assessed that (Lee) posed a risk of this nature, and its judgment was that the issuing of the IA was the most effective and proportionate means to address that risk. Those assessments were rational and lawful," the lawyers said.

The lawyers did not address Gardiner's comments in the hearing on Monday. The hearing is due to continue on Tuesday.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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