London, United Kingdom – A prominent Palestinian activist has won a legal case after an influential database used by banks to assess the risk of individuals and organisations linked him to terrorism.
In a settlement announced on Monday at the high court in London, Majed al-Zeer was removed from World-Check’s “terrorism” category and paid $13,000 in damages plus legal fees.
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According to lawyers representing him, the designation was based on an unsubstantiated claim made by the Israeli government that he was an operative of the Palestinian group, Hamas.
Zeer, who is also a British citizen, chairs the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), a UK-based lobby group that has long been a thorn in the side of Israel for leading calls for all Palestinian refugees to have the right of return.
In comments to Al Jazeera, Zeer said, “World-Check has been a bad tool for governments to hammer people who are just trying to say the truth about their illegal activities.”
“Israel has used all means – whether moral or immoral, legal and illegal – to deprive Palestinians of even a narrow space to shout.”
The designation is thought to have been a crucial factor in the closure of three bank accounts belonging to him and the PRC between 2009-2015.
“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 said, speaking outside the high court on Monday.
A tightening legal framework and record fines for banks found to be dealing in dirty money have led to an increasing reliance on risk intelligence firms such World-Check, an industry leader which claims to work with 49 out of 50 of the top global banks.
World-Check uses publicly available sources including sanctions lists, court records and media reports to build its profiles.
Tom Keatinge, from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said banks prefer to make conservative estimates about the suitability of clients rather than run the risk of letting a potential threat slip through the net.
“Their priority is to tag people as terrorists who are terrorists, even if sometimes that information is wrong.”
But over the years, a raft of charities, organisations and dissidents have been caught up in this sprawling dragnet, forcing World-Check to make changes to its database and pay damages amid legal challenges.
In 2017, Thomson Reuters apologised and paid damages to Finsbury Park Mosque in London for categorising it under “terrorism” and later that same year agreed to remove the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) from its database.
In October last year, Thomson Reuters completed the sale of a 55 percent stake in its risk arm, including its World-Check service, to investment giant Blackstone, while the unit was renamed Refinitiv.
Farooq Bajwa, the lawyer representing Zeer and who also represented Finsbury Park Mosque, claims that governments – especially Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – are using sanctions lists to manipulate World-Check.
“Governments have realised the potential of how damaging the terrorist label is, however spurious and unjustified,” said Bajwa, claiming that such designations can curtail a person’s ability to travel, bank and liaise with international institutions.
For its part, Zeer’s PRC has been engaged in a running battle with Israel since it was sanctioned by the Israeli defence minister in 2010. Zeer was himself sanctioned in 2013.
Founded in 1996, PRC regularly hosts conferences across Europe to promote the Palestinian cause and in Britain has strong ties with politicians from across the political spectrum.
In 2015, Israeli representatives took to the floor of the United Nations in Geneva to denounce PRC and accuse it of having ties with Hamas in a failed attempt to scupper its bid to achieve consultative status at the United Nations.
“If the UN had had any worries about PRC it would not have let it have this kind of status,” added Bajwa.
Zeer says his victory is somewhat muted because as per the settlement World-Check has not fully removed his profile though he no longer appears classified under “terrorism”.
Refinitiv, the parent company of World-Check, said it would include on his profile his denial of any links with Hamas and mention his belief that Israel’s sanctions against him are politically motivated.
Refinitiv has justified Zeer’s continued inclusion on the basis of his links to the PRC, which is still listed under “terrorism” on the database and considering further legal options to clear its name.
A Refinitiv spokesperson 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.”
“We do not give an opinion or recommendation about any individual or entity named in a World-Check report.”