Islanders evicted for US base finally win right to return home

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The Independent Online

Thousands of British citizens who were evicted from their paradise island home to make way for a giant US air base have won the right to return.

In a landmark legal judgment, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Chagos islanders could rebuild a life that they lost in the late 1960s.

Yesterday the islanders packed the court to witness their victory, and then called on the Government to pay for about 5,000 of them to return and rebuild the life that they lost 40 years ago.

The court overturned an order made by the Government in 2004 banning islanders from returning. Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagossian community in exile, said: "I feel very happy not just for myself but all the people who have been separated from their motherland.

"It is a special day for justice because even though we are a small people we have shown big people that we have rights."

An estimated 2,000 people were forced to leave their homes on the tiny chain of 65 coral islands in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s and 1970s. The islands, halfway between Africa and Indonesia, were first populated by slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal who were brought there by French colonists in 1776.

Under British rule from the early 19th century, the islanders lived with their own land and houses, speaking a distinctive Creole language in a place they described as "paradise".

But most of the inhabitants were forced to move to Mauritius and the Seychelles to make way for a huge new US air base on the main island of Diego Garcia after the British Government leased it to the United States in 1966.

Seven years ago the islanders won a High Court ruling that their expulsion was unlawful. But in 2004 an order passed by the British Government banned them from returning.

But yesterday the Court of Appeal ruled that the order, which was made under the Royal Prerogative without approval by Parliament, was unlawful and an abuse of power.

A spokesman for the UK Chagos Support Association said: "It is enormously encouraging that the court recognises the damage done to democracy if the Government can simply bypass Parliament and enforce its will."

Robert Bain, the chairman of the association, said about 5,000 Chagos islanders wanted to return and called on ministers to investigate how to restore their society and provide funds for them to rebuild their lives on the islands.

He said: "The Government knows the Chagossians have no independent means to resettle the islands. To accept the islanders' right to return but do nothing about it - as it did between 2000 and 2004 - would be meaningless and immoral."

Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour MP and a prominent campaigner for the Chagossians, said: "I hope the Government will now respect this decision, not seek to appeal it to the House of Lords, and not seek to introduce legislation which would deny the islanders their long-sought right of return to the places that they were brutally removed from more than 30 years ago.

"This is a day when we should celebrate the long march of the Chagossian people for their right to live in peace on their own islands."

The Foreign Office said it was considering an appeal to the House of Lords.

A spokesman said: "We are disappointed that our leave to appeal today's decision has been declined. We now have one month to lodge an appeal with the House of Lords.

"The Foreign Secretary will consider the judgment carefully and decide if an appeal to the House of Lords will be made. Until this, the matter remains sub judice."

Olivier Bancoult, 43: 'I want to take my children home'

When his younger sister became ill, four-year-old Olivier Bancoult and his family left the island of Berous Banhos to travel to Mauritius to seek medical treatment for her. She died in hospital and when the family tried to go home, they found they had been evicted by the British government.

Mr Bancoult, now 43, who leads the Chagossian community in exile, has lived all his life in Mauritius but wants nothing more than to take his 82-year-old mother and his own three children back to the land of his birth.

Mr Bancoult said: "We were in paradise. We had our life and our culture. Everyone had their own house, their garden and a job.

"We have not been able to adapt ourselves to Mauritius society because it's not our birthplace. We don't understand why we are excluded from our islands, it is an injustice.

"My father passed away and my mother wants to go to spend her last days on Chagos, the land of her birth.

"I would like to tell my children about my birthplace and take them all back there."