EXCLUSIVE: UK-based Palestinian NGO demands removal from 'terrorism blacklist'
LONDON - A lobby group which campaigns for the right of return of Palestinian refugees is battling Thomson Reuters in the High Court, amid claims that the company erroneously labelled it as having links to terrorism.
The London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), which is recognised by the United Nations and lobbies for the rights of Palestinians who were expelled or fled from Israel in 1948, says that its bank accounts were closed and its future put in jeopardy after World-Check, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, listed it in a confidential database of firms and individuals with links to terrorism.
World-Check's subscription-only database is used by banks and major financial institutions around the world to help them decide who to take on, or to retain, as clients. It is also used by subscribers to blacklist firms and individuals who are involved in financing terrorism or money laundering.
It's been disastrous for us. We have lost financial resources... and our reputation has suffered because World-Check spread this false information
- Majed al-Zeer, PRC chairman
The powerful role played by World-Check was first exposed by Middle East Eye columnist Peter Oborne in 2015 when, in a BBC documentary report, he revealed that international banking giant HSBC had suddenly closed the bank accounts of several prominent British Muslims and mainstream NGOs after they were erroneously listed on the database.
However, it was only in February last year after another legal case, that PRC and its chairman Majed al-Zeer discovered that they were labelled as linked to terror on World-Check. This expains, the body says, why a string of bank accounts with HSBC, Metro Bank and Barclays were frozen after PRC was first listed by World-Check in January 2014.
'Spread of false information'
"It's been disastrous for us," Zeer told MEE. "We have lost financial resources, we have lost members of staff who had been with us many years and our reputation has suffered because World-Check spread this false information."
Zeer added that PRC and its staff condemn terrorism and only work "within the law" to support the rights of Palestinian refugees. He added that this week's libel claim lodged at the High Court is a legal test case for Muslim organisations falsely accused of supporting terrorism.
"Like many organisations we were trapped between challenging these false claims and bringing more attention to them and risking our reputation further," he added.
Furthermore, lawyers acting for PRC say the World-Check listing is based on "politically motivated" allegations and comes after then Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, banned the organisation, alleging close ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and accusing it of promoting "anti-Israel propaganda in Europe".
Israeli officials have also pointed to the fact that PRC hosted Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at a conference via video call in 2009. They also claimed that members of Hamas, which is banned in the US and EU, held senior positions within PRC.
These claims have been repeated in the British tabloid press, where the PRC has become a bete noire of right-wing think tanks and pro-Israel activists. The PRC says Haniyeh was an elected official at the time he addressed its conference, and pointed to a string of Independent Press Standards Organisation and House of Lords adjudications in its favour.
The PRC also denies any link to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. Its lawyers said Israel's claims were "without foundation", and had directly contributed to the group's controversial listing on the World-Check database.
"The defendant is publishing serious allegations about [PRC] on the basis of lies that have been propagated for political purposes," PRC's legal team will argue, according to court documents seen by MEE.
Farooq Bajwa, a solicitor representing PRC, told Middle East Eye: "The sole reason our client is listed on the database is because of an Israeli government decision to list PRC as a terrorist organisation.
"No other country in the world has this view, as PRC is a peaceful organisation that condemns terrorism in the strongest terms… PRC's only objective is to speak for Palestinians living in refugee camps around the world who wish to return to their ancestral homes."
'A landmark legal appeal'
Bajwa added that the legal claim had the potential to become a "landmark test case" as it would see a British court decide on the legitimacy of a terrorism designation made by the Israeli government.
He said in previous cases that British judges had struck down terrorist designations made by the Tunisian and Egyptian government, citing concerns over judicial independence and the rule of law.
Staff at PRC were shocked to discover they had been listed as linked to terrorism, particularly because the organisation was granted consultant status at the United Nations in 2015.
The lobby group started operating in Europe since 1996, and has also held dozens of events in Westminster with British politicians, including Labour's Ben Bradshaw, Conservative Party rising star James Cleverly and Desmond Swayne, a former minister at the Department for International Development.
Officials from PRC also met Fabian Hamilton MP, Jeremy Corybn's shadow minister for peace in January.
He told MEE: "I recently met with the Palestinian Return Centre to discuss the work they are doing in the UK to promote the rights of Palestinian refugees, and those Palestinians living in Israel.
"Powers in the Middle East should not play politics with the rights of Palestinians at home or abroad, and instead should work with UN accredited organisations such as the PRC to ensure the freedoms of Palestinian civilians."
A legal source added: "Of course, the Israelis know that PRC are not really terrorists – they are regularly in Westminster and are accredited at the UN – but's it's a very useful political tool to be able to label your opponents as terrorists. That's why they are not screaming for the British government to proscribe them."
The Foreign Office declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal action.
Open to abuse?
World-Check's critics say its systems are open to abuse and misinterpretation as the database is created from publicly available sources, and it is not clear that banks can always reach an informed decision about clients based on the World-Check information.
The database has faced consistent criticism after its role was first exposed in 2015, and last year Thomson Reuters agreed to pay £10,000 in damages and to make a statement of regret after it erroneously listed Finsbury Park Mosque in north London on the database.
The mosque had been associated with the radical cleric Abu Hamza until 2005, when it was taken over by new management. It is now seen as a model of community relations and counter-extremism.
A year earlier, in December 2016, World-Check was ridiculed after it emerged that a nine-month-old baby was on the database because her father, a minor British royal, was listed as a "politically exposed person".
Due diligence by specialist teams
Thomson Reuters declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said in a statement: "Our World-Check product and services aggregate data from reliable and reputable public domain sources – official sanctions lists, law and regulatory enforcement lists, government sources and trustworthy media publications – to help organisations fulfill their due diligence obligations and identify potential financial and related crime."
The statement continued: "The information in World-Check is made available on a subscription basis only to those who require it to carry out due diligence or other screening activities in accordance with their legal or regulatory obligations or risk management procedures designed to combat financial crime. This data is collated by specialist research teams led by subject matter experts focused on topics such as sanctions, terrorism and insurgency and organized crime.
"World-Check appreciates the data protection and privacy implications of providing this database and has robust data protection processes in place. Thomson Reuters is registered with the UK Data Protection regulator, the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), and meets EU data protection standards.
"A clear privacy statement online sets out how any individual can contact us if they believe any of the information held is inaccurate, and we would encourage them to do so."
Thomson Reuters added that it made clear to its customers that inclusion on a World-Check list should "not automatically be taken to draw any particular inference (negative or otherwise) about them" and that customers "should not rely solely upon the World-Check reports when making any decision to deal with any person or entity, and before making any such decision they should conduct independent checks to verify the information".