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EXCLUSIVE: Palestinian rights activist wins legal fight over 'terrorism' database

Lawyers for Majed al-Zeer, head of Palestinian Return Centre, accuse Israel of using risk databases to wage 'legal warfare' on campaigners
Majed al-Zeer remains listed on World-Check as an "individual" of heightened risk (Reuters)

The head of a leading Palestinian lobby organisation has won a legal fight over his listing on the World-Check financial database which falsely linked him to terrorism.

In a settlement announced on Monday, Majed al-Zeer, the director of the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), which is recognised by the United Nations for campaigning for Palestinian refugees’ right of return, was removed from the terrorism category and paid £10,000 ($13,000) in damages.

Lawyers representing Zeer, who was also paid legal costs, believe he was added to World-Check because of a “politically motivated” proscription by the Israeli government.

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They said the outcome had “made a dent” in what they said was Israel’s tactic of abusing due diligence databases for political ends.

"For the Palestinian cause this is a historic moment," Zeer said in comments to Middle East Eye.

"It’s the starting point for anyone who is Palestinian or who works for Palestine to start chasing up World-Check for their false information, which has been spread everywhere to stop Palestine becoming free and Palestinians claiming their rights."

World-Check is widely used by leading banks and businesses to assess customer risk and reduce their exposure to legislation intended to tackle financial crime.

The database was owned by Thomson Reuters until October last year when it was sold by Thomson Reuters with other parts of its financial risk business to the investment giant Blackstone, which set up a new risk company, Refinitiv.

Zeer originally brought the case against Thomson Reuters which agreed to pay the damages.

'Legal warfare'

Farooq Bajwa, a solicitor representing Zeer, said: "We feel the Israeli government’s use of these databases is sinister and has far-reaching consequences for the people whom they name.

“It has almost become another form of legal warfare or coercion, to put people on these lists without any real justification in many cases. We believe the PRC case is a prime example of this.”

Zeer’s victory adds to a growing list of apologies and corrections issued by World-Check as a result of its "terrorism" category.

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Zeer, who filed his claim against Thomson Reuters in March last year, discovered he and his lobby group were listed on the database after the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, which was also listed, won a similar settlement.

Many of those listed under World-Check’s “terrorism” category, including Zeer, the PRC and the Finsbury Park Mosque, say that they have had bank accounts shut down as a result of the listing.

Speaking outside court on Monday, Zeer said that both he and the PRC had had bank accounts abruptly closed on several occasions between 2009 and 2015.

"The curtailment of our banking facilities severely hindered our ability to operate and live and we were unable to penetrate the cloak of secrecy surrounding World-Check and their relationship with the banks."

Zeer’s World-Check profile has not been removed but moved to the category of an “individual” of heightened risk.

Refinitiv said he would remain on the database because of his link to an "officially sanctioned organisation".

The PRC as an organisation, which despite filing its own legal claim remains listed under terrorism on the database, is considering further legal options.

Refinitiv said it had agreed as part of the settlement to add to the PRC’s World-Check profile the group's strong denial of links to terrorism and a clarification that only the Israeli government considers it a terrorist group.

It has also agreed to add the fact that the British government has never expressed concerns about its activity and that the PRC considers the Israeli designation politically motivated.

The parties have agreed that references to Israel accusing Zeer of being a main operative of Hamas’ European branch, which he denies, will remain on his profile.

Meetings with British MPs

In December 2010 the Israeli defence minister banned the PRC, accusing it of having close ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and of promoting anti-Israel propaganda in Europe.

Israel has cited the fact that the PRC hosted the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at a conference via video call in 2009. It has also claimed members of Hamas, which is banned in the US and the EU, held senior positions within the PRC.

The PRC denies allegations of connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. It says Haniyeh was an elected official at the time he addressed its conference.

It points out that it was granted consultant status at the United Nations in 2015, saying this means it carries 21 UN security passes.

Since its inception in 1996, it has met regularly with British MPs of both major parties.

Labour MP Andy Slaughter, the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Britain-Palestine, who has spoken at PRC events, said: “This is a significant victory for the Palestinian Return Centre in challenging those who blindly adopt such labels and become vehicles for propaganda.

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"Labelling organisations as terrorist or otherwise restricting them just because they are critical of Israeli government policy or are promoting the rights of Palestinians is undemocratic and highly prejudicial."

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, a former chair of parliament’s foreign affairs select committee, said: "It’s pleasing to see justice at least partly done. The difficulty of representing Palestinian interests when they are under occupation supported by an alliance that includes the world’s most powerful interests cannot be overestimated.

'Blacklisted for political reasons'

"This a small step in correcting the record so Palestinian humanitarian organisations and their members can do the work needed to address the human consequences of continuing illegal occupation."

Bajwa said he believed the PRC would now be free to continue its work internationally and in the UK.

"The PRC is a very standard, modern-day, lobby organisation with one specific aim, which is to highlight the international right and the accepted legal right of refugees to return one day to their homeland," he said.

Speaking outside court, Bajwa said: "Lawyers around the world are discovering that non-violent perfectly legitimate and often very well meaning individuals and organisations are being blacklisted for pure political reasons.

"We would ask governments around the world to stop abusing the power of secret databases in order to stop legitimate and peaceful political work."

A spokesperson for Refinitiv said: "We agreed to change the categorisation of Mr Al-Zeer’s report, however the information about this individual remains in World-Check due to his connection to an officially sanctioned organisation.

"Such information was and continues to be accurate and, like all World-Check data, is aggregated from reliable public domain sources to help organisations fulfil their due diligence obligations and identify potential financial and related crime."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.