A former head of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, will hear secret court proceedings to decide whether Katia Zatuliveter, a Russian alleged to have been recruited as a spy, should be deported, it was agreed tonight.
Lawyers for the 25-year-old woman strongly objected to Lander’s role. Tim Owen QC, counsel for Zatuliveter, described Lander as a “cheerleader for the work of the security service” and said he should not be on the panel of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, Siac, which will hear her case.
MI5 alleges that Zatuliveter, arrested at the end of last year when she was working for Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South and a member of the Commons defence committee, was recruited by agents of the Russian intelligence service in Britain.
Theresa May, the home secretary, agreed with MI5 she should be deported. Lander’s role in the case was raised at a public hearing of Siac, which normally meets in secret. This is the first time it will hear a case dealing with alleged espionage.
In sharp exchanges Mr Justice Mitting, chairman of Siac, said he had chosen Lander to hear the case. “We need to have some expertise,” he told Owen. Mitting said later Lander’s seat on the panel would be essential to enable it to do its job.
Owen argued earlier that “in all the circumstances Sir Stephen Lander would inevitably be perceived by a fair-minded and informed observer as an expert witness in support of the respondent’s case rather than as a member of an independent and impartial tribunal deciding whether or not the security service’s assessment of the appellant is correct”.
Owen added: “There is a very obvious and real possibility of bias which makes his position on the panel wholly untenable.”
Owen quoted from recent interviews from Lander in which he expressed strong views and suspicions about Russian espionage, Owen told Mitting.
Zatuliveter’s strict bail conditions – journalists were not allowed to converse with her at the court hearing – were relaxed earlier this year so she could apply for work, including a role working for Russian television. She had been banned from visiting parliament or contacting Hancock, and had been required to notify the home secretary if she met anyone other than her immediate family and legal team.
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.
She was stopped at Gatwick airport in August last year and arrested in December amid claims she was engaged in espionage. She has denied the allegations, saying she has never worked for Russian intelligence services.
MI5 alleges she had been supplying sensitive information to the SVR, Russia‘s foreign intelligence agency. Zatuliveter denies the charge.
Hancock has 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.
“The Russians may pose a threat to national security but if you believe what the security services tell you, everybody could pose a threat these days”, he told the Daily Mail.
“Katia came with references and was the best person for the job. She was security checked and it took about two months for her House of Commons pass to come through.”
Hancock added: “I have employed an American girl before and her dad was a Congressman. Her pass took the same amount of time to come through. There could be Russian spies in Parliament but I don’t know of any. You’d have to ask MI5 for details.”