Judge rejects islanders' lawsuit over military base at Diego Garcia

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The Independent Online

Thousands of destitute Indian Ocean islanders claiming compensation for being evicted from their homes by the British Government more than 30 years ago were branded "liars" by a High Court judge yesterday when he threw out their legal action.

Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in the High Court in London, ruled that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing their action, including their claim for a declaration that they had a right to return home to the Chagos Islands.

The judge acknowledged that some of the islanders had been "treated shamefully" when the British evicted them from their archipelago to pave the way for an American military base on Diego Garcia at the height of the Cold War.

But he said that their legal claims for compensation for personal injury suffered during their eviction and resettlement in Mauritius and Seychelles in the 1960s and 1970s were stale and were now time-barred.

In a stinging criticism of their legal action the judge said that "some of the Chagossian witnesses gave deliberately false evidence on a number of issues". He added: "Evidence was also given, as if at first hand, about events which the witness could not have seen or heard."

In particular, the judge said, some of the islanders had failed to address the question of a past litigation that culminated in 1,344 Chagossians benefiting from a £4m settlement with the British Government in 1982.

Representatives of the 5,000 islanders who were in court yesterday to hear the ruling vowed to continue their fight for justice. Speaking during a break in the summary, Richard Gifford, acting on behalf of the islanders, said: "They will certainly continue their struggle. They are now in a state of shock that there has been no adjudication in their favour." He added that, although "there is not much that is pleasurable in the judgment", the judge had at least "recognised the sufferings they have gone through".

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that there were no reasonable grounds for bringing the claim and that it had no real prospect of success. He awarded summary judgment to the Attorney General, on behalf of the Government and Her Majesty's British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner.

The case followed a ruling in November 2000 in which two judges said that there was "no source of lawful authority" to justify the way that the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were removed from their homes. But Mr Justice Ouseley said that their claim of unlawful exile as a legal wrong was not arguable.

He said: "Justice does not require an obviously unmeritorious case to be allowed to proceed. Ill-treatment does not require a hopeless case to be allowed to continue. Indeed, to raise false hopes would not be fair.

"There is every good reason to avoid the waste of public money and court resources which the continuation of hopeless claims or contentions would otherwise create." He added that he was "acutely conscious" of the position of at least some of the claimants.

"It does appear that, in the absence of unexpectedly compelling evidence to the contrary, at least some claimant Chagossians could show that they were treated shamefully by successive UK governments."

Whatever view might be taken of the strategic importance of Diego Garcia, some people were uprooted from the only way of life they knew and were sent to places where there was little or no provision for their reception, accommodation, employment and well-being, he said.