Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chagos Islanders Denied Right-of-Return in Ruling From the British House of Lords

Wednesday, October 22, 2008
16:12 Mecca time, 13:12 GMT

Chagos islanders dealt court blow

The Chagos Islanders originally won the right to
return home in 2000

The British government has won its appeal over court rulings that allowed displaced Chagos Islands inhabitants to return to their homes in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

The decision by the House of Lords, the UK's upper house of parliament, on Wednesday, overturns earlier rulings that said the method used to block the return of the islanders was unlawful.

About 2,000 Chagos inhabitants were forced off their homes by Britain in the 1960s and '70s when the UK granted permission for a US air and naval base on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago.

"There are a lot of Chagossian people in front of the court today and we are very sad about this decision," Hengride Permel, from the Chagos Islands community association, told Al Jazeera.

"It was a chance for the British government to right a wrong ... it is a shameful day for the government."

Permel said campaigners planned to "take a letter to Downing Street", the prime minister's residence, asking for the government decision to be overturned.

Diego Garcia has been used in US military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the British government has argued that it would not be right for the Chagossians to be allowed home because of security concerns.

Many of the islanders were moved to Mauritius.

Richard Gifford, the islanders' UK-based solicitor, said: "It has been the misfortune of the Chagos Islanders that their passionate desire to return to their homeland has been caught up in the power politics of foreign policy for the past 40 years.

"Sadly, their struggle to regain their paradise lost has been dismissed on legal grounds, but the political possibilities remain open for parliament, the British public and the international community to continue to support [their return]."

Right to return

The Chagos islanders originally won the right to return home in 2000.

Robin Cook, the UK's then foreign secretary, said the government would arrange for the Chagossians to return to the outer islands after a court victory.

But in 2004 the government changed its mind and forbade anyone from having a right of abode on the islands.

In 2007, the British high court ruled the Chagos islanders had been illegally expelled and should be allowed to return, but the British government appealed and the House of Lords ruling has upheld that appeal.

"The government has had the original ruling overturned," Nadim Baba, Al Jazeera's correspondent in London, said.

"There's a lot of anger over the decision, but for the time being it's a victory for the British government."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Chagos exiles 'cannot return'

Lawyer Richard Gifford says islanders are in shock

Exiles of the Chagos Islands will not be able to return to their homeland, the House of Lords has ruled.

The government won its appeal against a previous court decision that had ruled in favour of 2,000 former residents of the British Indian Ocean territory.

They were evicted in the 1960s when the colony was leased to the US to build an airbase on the atoll of Diego Garcia.

Their solicitor Richard Gifford said they were in a "state of shock" at the "disappointing outcome".

Mr Gifford said: "It has been the misfortune of the Chagos islanders that their passionate desire to return to their homeland has been caught up in the power politics of foreign policy for the past 40 years."

He added that the islanders were "really shocked" at the Law Lord's decision, following as it did the unanimous opinion of seven other judges that their right of abode was "so fundamental" the government could not take it away.

Lord Hoffmann said the case's subtext was funding - the UK may have had to pay for rebuilding their community.

He said the Chagossians had understandably "shown no inclination to return to live Crusoe-like in poor and barren conditions of life".

And in light of this, he said Foreign Secretary David Miliband was "entitled to take into account" the possibility the Chagossians would call on the UK to support "the economic, social and educational advancement' of the residents".

The campaigning journalist John Pilger said the judgment was political and upheld an "immoral and illegal" act.

He added: "How could it be otherwise when the highest court in this country has found in favour of the most flagrant injustice, certainly in my lifetime?"

The Law Lords decision is the final judgement in the long-running case.

In a statement, Mr Miliband said: "It is appropriate on this day that I should repeat the government's regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them.

"We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation."

However, Mr Miliband said that the courts had previously ruled that fair compensation had been paid to the Chargossians and that "the UK has no legal obligation to pay any further compensation".

He added: "Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004."

1967 - 1971: Chagossians evicted from Indian Ocean homeland
2000: High Court rules they can return to 65 islands, but not Diego Garcia
2004: Government uses royal prerogative to nullify decision
2007: Court overturns that order
June 2008: Government asks the Lords to rule on the issue
October 2008: Government wins appeal against the return
BBC world affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge said the high hopes of the Chagossians would now be dashed by the ruling. He said it was likely they would take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2000, High Court judges ruled that Chagossians could return to 65 of the islands, but not to Diego Garcia.

In 2004, the government used the royal prerogative - exercised by ministers in the Queen's name - to effectively nullify the decision.

Last year, the court overturned that order and rejected the government argument that the royal prerogative was immune from scrutiny. The government had asked the Lords to rule on the issue.

A spokesman for the Chagos Islanders said in a statement before the three-to-two majority ruling: "Forty years ago, in December 1966, the Harold Wilson Labour government gave away our homeland, including Diego Garcia, which has been given to the US government to use as a military base.

"The whole Chagossian population was forcibly removed from our homes, our animals were killed and we were dumped, mainly in the slums of Mauritius. We have been treated like slaves."

The exiled residents had hoped that if the Law Lords ruling had gone in their favour, their heritage could be rebuilt around a new tourist industry.

The Chagossians will require immigration consent to visit the islands for purposes such as tending graves, but the government has made it clear that consent would be no more than a formality.

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Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2008/10/22 13:40:06 GMT

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