Britain will allow islanders to return after 30-year exile

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The Independent Online

The British Government cleared the way last night for thousands of Chagos islanders to return to their Indian Ocean home deciding not to appeal a High Court ruling that they were unlawfully exiled.

The British Government cleared the way last night for thousands of Chagos islanders to return to their Indian Ocean home deciding not to appeal a High Court ruling that they were unlawfully exiled.

High Court judges ruled the Government had acted illegally in expelling the people of an Indian Ocean island to make way for a US military base.

The judgment was greeted with jubilation by the people of Chagos archipelago, and accusations that Tory and Labour ministers had - over the years - connived to cover up the injustice from both Parliament and the United Nations.

The documents recently released also reveal that the British Government received a secret "subsidy" of £5 million from the US for the Polaris programme, after acquiescing to the removal of the islanders.

Representatives of the islanders demanded a public apology from the British Government for the 30 years of forcible exile, during which many had died in poverty and despair. Much of their anger was directed towards Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who had been sympathetic to their cause while in Opposition, but was accused of carrying out a U-turn once in office.

Lord Justice Laws, sitting with Mr Justice Gibbs, gave the withering ruling that a 1971 Immigration Ordinance that bans the islanders from returning from their forcible exile was "an abject legal failure". The Ilois, said the judges, were subjects of the Crown and rightly looked to the Crown for the security of their homeland within the Queen's dominion. "But in this case they have been excluded from it. It has been done for high political reasons: It was Tacitus who said: 'They make a desert and call it peace ...'"

The judgment, which opens the way for the islanders to return home, was initially stayed for seven days to allow the Crown to appeal, but the Foreign Office later announced that it would not be contesting the ruling. The Ilois can now expect substantial compensation, but a Foreign Office spokeswoman added: "We are not seeking to defend what happened in the Sixties and Seventies. We have to deal with the situation as it is now."

Last night there was pressure from cross-party MPs to settle the matter as soon as possible. Donald Anderson, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said: "We must now accept the judgment and do our best to make up for the wrongs of the past."

Richard Gifford, the London solicitor who had represented the Ilois from the start, added: "There's been a serious injustice to these people, and I can hardly think that the Government would pursue a highly technical appeal and not want to make reparations."

The Ilois are adamant that no amount of money will "buy them off" from returning to their home. This will face vehement opposition from the US Government, which maintains any return will threaten the security of their air base at Diego Garcia, a strategic centre of major operations.

US State Department sources said the current volatile situation in the Middle East, and the bombing of the US warship in the Yemen, highlights the security problem. The islanders point out that there is a distance of 130 miles between the air base and the nearest other island in the Chagos. And the US is using just half of one island among 64 in the archipelago.

The original evictions saw more than 2,000 of the Ilois forced out of their homes, and the court was told "simply dumped on the dockside" 1,200 miles away on Mauritius and other faraway destinations between 1967 and 1973, left to a life of distress and poverty. The Government had maintained, falsely the court ruled yesterday, that the inhabitants were not permanent residents of the islands but contracted outside workers.

Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, for the Ilois, said the British authorities were guilty of "a very sad and discreditable" Cold War cover-up. Hitherto undisclosed Foreign Office documents produced in court showed the extent of arrogance of the Government and its desire to hide the truth.

One memo, from 1966, said "They [the Colonial Office] wish to avoid the using the phase 'permanent inhabitants' because that will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights will be safeguarded by ... the UN."

The Permanent Under-Secretary at the time "unburdened himself thus ... we must be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours."

By 1968 the Foreign Secretary was being advised that the argument the islanders were not permanent residents might be difficult to sustain, in view of the recent discovery that the number of second generation Ilois were much greater than originally anticipated.

Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said it was too late for the islanders to return home and urged the Government to compensate them.

"This judgment is a matter of embarrassment to both the present Government and its predecessors," he said. "Return to the island would be fraught with great difficulties, since the infrastructure has long since disappeared. The best solution now is for the Government to offer generous compensation.