Banished islanders win right of appeal

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IN AN HISTORIC legal decision, an Indian Ocean islander yesterday won the right to bring a High Court case against theGovernment for expelling him and hundreds of others from their homes to make way for a US military base.

Louis Bancoult won leave to begin a legal fight to return to his homeland in the Chagos Islands, which make up the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was emptied of its inhabitants to allow for the building of the giant Diego Garcia air base 32 years ago.

At the time of the clearance, 1,400 people lived on the islands; around 3,000 exiles and their descendants now live on Mauritius, 1,200 miles from home.

The case has become an international cause celebre, with human rights campaigners claiming it was a shameful, if little-known, episode in recent British history. The might of the British and American governments had been used to crush the rights of the islanders as UK citizens, they say. What happened has resulted in five generations being sent into exile, often in poverty, it is claimed.

The island of Diego Garcia, in the meantime, leased to the US for 50 years, has been built up into a major strategic base, which was used in the bombings of Iraq during the Gulf War.

Mr Bancoult had received legal aid to bring his case. The British Government argued that the High Court had no jurisdiction over the matter and that it should go before a British Indian Ocean Territory colonial court. But Mr Justice Scott Baker, granting Mr Bancoult and fellow islanders leave to seek a judicial review, dismissed the Government's arguments and ruled: "I am satisfied the applicant has at the very least an arguable case on jurisdiction. In my judgment the case requires careful consideration of a difficult area of constitutional law."

Mr Bancoult, the chairman of the Chagos Refugee Group, was not in London yesterday. Tracked down to his home in Port Louis, Mauritius and told the news by The Independent, he said: "This is wonderful, fantastic. We are very happy to hear what had happened, but we are also very surprised."

His family found themselves banished from their home on the island of Peros Banhos, part of the Chagos archipelago of which Diego Garcia is the principal island, in 1967. They had travelled to Mauritius because his sister needed medical treatment, and then discovered they were not allowed to return.

Mr Bancoult, a 35-year-old electrician, said: " I am lucky, I have got a job and I can feed my wife and children. But a lot of others are living in poverty. There are a lot of people who have problems, there are people who have committed suicide. The terrible part is just to be thrown out of our homes like that. It is difficult to describe how much we miss it, especially the older people.

"We are citizens of the UK. I have given my son the English name of Oliver. But I must admit we feel a bit betrayed. I hope to to go to London very soon and perhaps Robin Cook will see me."

The Foreign Secretary has been accused of "evading the issue" when the question of Diego Garcia was raised by his Mauritian counterpart in September 1997. The Government insists that adequate financial compensation had been paid to the islanders in 1972 and 1982 and the vast majority have renounced their right to return.