Britain defends action against Guardian over Snowden leaks

Britain on Monday insisted it firmly supports the right to freedom of expression after the Council of Europe questioned its treatment of the Guardian newspaper and the partner of one its journalists over intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden.

The British government argued that documents carried by David Miranda -- the partner of reporter Glenn Greenwald who has worked with Snowden on a series of spying exposes -- were obtained illegally and that their disclosure could have put lives at risk.

Police detained Miranda at London Heathrow Airport last month on the basis of a controversial British counter-terrorism law that allows authorities to hold a suspect for up to nine hours without showing probable cause.

Britain used the same argument -- that the disclosures could have put lives at risk -- in relation to the destruction of Snowden-linked material which it requested from the Guardian at its offices.

"The government thinks this was preferable to taking legal action," Daniel Hoeltgen, spokesman for the Council of Europe secretary general, said of what he called British Home Secretary Theresa May's "comprehensive reply" to the pan-European rights body's questions.

"It says that in doing so it protected the Guardian's freedom to publish on the issue."

But Hoeltgen added: "For the sake of clarity, a legal proceeding may have been better in this case".

Miranda has brought a case against his detention and the confiscation of personal items to British courts.

He argues that they were a misuse of anti-terror legislation and that his human rights were violated.

The case is due to be heard in full at a High Court trial in London in October.

Council of Europe chief Thorbjorn Jagland said he "asked the UK government to keep me informed about the outcome of the legal proceedings".

Jagland had asked Britain for a clarification after the Guardian said that Britain's electronic eavesdropping station GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) had on July 20 supervised the destruction of the hard drives and memory chips on which material leaked by fugitive US security employee Snowden had been saved.

The request was made as Miranda's detention and the destruction of the Guardian files could represent a threat to freedom of expression.

"Violations of the right to freedom of expression represent one of our biggest human rights issues in Europe today," said Jagland.