MI5‘s claims, backed by the home secretary, Theresa May, that the Russian lover of a Liberal Democrat MP spied for Moscow has been dramatically rejected by a national security court convened to hear the case.
The court — the special immigration appeals commission (Siac)— has dismissed MI5’s assertion that Ekaterina Zatuliveter, lover and former aide to Mike Hancock, a member of the Commons defence committee, was recruited by Russian intelligence.
The decision is all the more humiliating for the security services since the panel judging the case included Sir Stephen Lander, a former head of MI5. On MI5’s advice, May agreed to deport the Russian woman on national security grounds, saying her presence in the UK was not “conducive to the public good”.
The Home Office said it was disappointed with the ruling.
A spokeswoman said: “National security is the primary duty of government and we will take all necessary steps to protect the public from individuals we believe pose a threat and remove them from the UK.
“The court ruled that there were ample grounds for suspicion. We are therefore very disappointed by the court’s judgment and stand by our decision to pursue deportation on national security grounds.”
With evidence by unidentified MI5 officers heard partly in secret, the Siac panel was told that Zatuliveter, 26, was a long-term agent recruited by the SVR, Russia‘s foreign intelligence agency. Zatuliveter began working for Hancock as an intern in November 2006, soon after she arrived in Britain to study for a master’s degree at Bradford University, a course Hancock helped to pay for.
In evidence devoted more to her personal life than espionage, the commission heard how Zatuliveter had a series of lovers whom she met when acting as a chaperone at international conferences in St Petersburg, where she had been a student.
During the hearing, Jonathan Glasson, counsel for May and MI5, accused Zatuliveter of lying and said she had spied for Russia “from the heart of British democracy in parliament”. Zatuliveter described MI5’s claims as “laughable”.
Her counsel, Tim Owen QC, described MI5’s investigation in the affair as “more akin to Inspector Clouseau than George Smiley”, referring to the Pink Panther inspector played by Peter Sellers and the spymaster in John Le Carré’s books.
“It is a pretty odd person who chooses to stay and fight knowing they are a spy,” Owen added.
An MI5 witness cited Zatuliveter’s visit to the Tricycle Theatre in north London to see The Great Game, a series of plays on Britain and Russia’s historical relationship with Afghanistan, as evidence of her spying activities. The witness apologised when it was put to her that The Great Game had “nothing to do with spying”, explaining that she had heard the phrase was coined by Rudyard Kipling in his book, Kim.
The Siac panel also questioned MI5’s suggestion that entries in one of Zatuliveter’s diaries, with a Gustav Klimt painting on its cover, were fake.
She said she started a diary in 2004 because she “felt lonely”. Zatuliveter had a “crush” on a Dutch diplomat identified as L. After flirting with a member of a Serbian-Montenegrin delegation she struck up a relationship with Hancock that lasted from June 2006 to March 2010.
When that finished, she started a relationship with Y, a European official who worked in Nato.
She told the panel, chaired by Mr Justice Mitting, she had six meetings in London with MI5 officers — named as Stephen and Louise – in 2009 and 2010. They asked her about contacts she had had with two people from the Russian embassy, including one identified as “Boris”, whom she first met at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in central London.
Zatuliveter was stopped at Gatwick airport in August last year, two months after Anna Chapman, a Russian woman with British citizenship from her marriage to Alex Chapman, a Briton, was arrested in the US with nine others on suspicion that they were operating a spy ring.
Zatuliveter was arrested in December.
Hancock defended his decision to employ her. “There were no dodgy deals, no favours and no shortcuts. I’m not naive,” he said when she was arrested. He said she was security checked and it took two months before she was given a House of Commons pass.
Reacting to the ruling, Hancock told the Guardian: “I’m delighted at the news. I think it shows the security services to be a pretty inept bunch. I’m amazed that the judgment came out in the way it did. I couldn’t believe the establishment would allow her to win. But I’m delighted she has.”