MI5 claims, backed by home secretary Theresa May, that the Russian lover of a Liberal Democrat MP was a spy for Moscow were rejected on Tuesday by a national security court specially convened to hear the case. In an unprecedented judgment, the court – the special immigration appeals commission (Siac) – dismissed MI5’s assertion that Ekaterina Zatuliveter, lover and former aide to Mike Hancock, a member of the Commons defence committee, was planted by Russian intelligence. The panel judging the case included Sir Stephen Lander, a former head of MI5.
On MI5’s advice, the home secretary last year ordered that Zatuliveter be deported on national security grounds, claiming her presence in the UK was not “conducive to the public good”.
Reacting to the ruling, Hancock said: “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.”
Asked what she now planned to do now, Zatuliveter said: “Try to live my life.” Hearing evidence, partly in secret, from unidentified MI5 officers, the Siac panel was told that Zatuliveter, 26, was a long-term agent recruited by the SVR, Russia‘s foreign intelligence agency. MI5’s counsel accused her of lying and said she had spied for Russia “from the heart of British democracy in parliament”. Zatuliveter described MI5’s claims as “laughable”.
Referring to what it called “a very important document”, the panel rejected MI5’s suggestion that entries in Zatuliveter’s diary, with a Gustav Klimt painting on its cover, were fake. The panel was convinced they were genuine as they fitted her character – “immature, calculating, emotional, and self-centred”, says the judgment.
After hearing evidence devoted more to her personal life than espionage, the Siac panel, chaired by Mr Justice Mitting, concluded: “The most likely explanation, and one which we find to be proved on the balance of probabilities, is that, however odd it may seem, she fell for him.” They added: “The relationship with Mr Hancock was enduring and genuine on both sides.”
Moreover, there was no evidence, the panel said, that she passed on any information gleaned from her relationships with Hancock, a Dutch diplomat identified as L, and another man, Y, described as an official who worked at Nato. “Nothing in the material which we have analysed suggests, let alone demonstrates, that the appellant exploited her relationships for the purposes of the Russian state,” said Siac. During the hearings, her counsel, Tim Owen QC, described MI5’s investigation in the affair as “more akin to Inspector Clouseau than George Smiley. It is a pretty odd person who chooses to stay and fight knowing they are a spy,” Owen added.
But the Siac panel said that MI5’s suspicions about Zatuliveter were justified, that Hancock would have been of interest to Russian intelligence agencies, and that MI5’s investigation into her affairs had been “thorough and competent”. The Home Office seized on the comments, saying that the panel had ruled there were “ample grounds for suspicion”. A spokesman added: “We are therefore very disappointed by the court’s judgment and stand by our decision to pursue deportation on national security grounds.”
Zatuliveter is expected soon to visit her parents in Russia. Her current visa runs out next August when she would have to apply for a new one. Tessa Gregory, her solicitor, described the ruling as a “historic judgment”. She added: “Our security service is supposed to be responsible for protecting us against serious threats to national security. It is therefore extremely worrying that they have chosen to waste their time, at great public expense, needlessly and unfairly, pursuing an innocent young woman. Their case was built entirely on speculation, prejudice, and conjecture.” Zatuliveter’s last year had been a “Kafkaesque nightmare”, attempting to prove a negative in proceedings where she could not see the evidence against her, added Gregory.
Zatuliveter was stopped at Gatwick airport in August last year, two months after Anna Chapman, a Russian woman with British citizenship was arrested in the US with nine others on suspicion that they were operating a spy ring. Zatuliveter was arrested in December.
“I didn’t think for a second that there was a possibility that I could win”, Zatuliveter said in an interview to be broadcast on Tuesday night. “Lots of people believed I was a spy, simply because the British government said so”, she told BBC 1’s Panorama: From Russia With Love.