Families exiled from the British-owned Chagos Islands nearly 40 years ago to make way for a major American military base were illegally banished, the High Court ruled yesterday.
A swingeing judgment, which condemned the basis offered by the Government for barring the Chagossians as "repugnant", paved the way for a renewed campaign to allow the 4,000 exiles to return home.
The Indian Ocean archipelago was cleared of its inhabitants between 1965 and 1973 after Britain accepted American demands to use the largest island, Diego Garcia, as an air base and naval facility.
The remote base, some 1,000 miles from the nearest mainland, is considered Washington's most important military toehold and was used extensively during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But two High Court judges yesterday dealt a blow to American insistence that all 65 islands in the Chagos archipelago must be left unpopulated by throwing out an attempt by the Foreign Office to summarily abolish the islanders' right of abode.
It is the second time that the High Court has ruled in favour of the islanders' right to return. After a judgment in 2000 the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, signalled the Government's readiness to finally allow the islanders to return. But those efforts were halted in 2004 when Mr Cook's successor, Jack Straw, used a little-known royal prerogative, "Orders in Council", to in effect by-pass Parliament and put in place a new ban on the islanders' return.
The judges yesterday ruled that the archaic procedure was "irrational" and was deployed to protect the strategic interests of London and Washington. The Foreign Office, which said that it was "disappointed" by the ruling, was given 28 days to decide whether it wants to appeal.
Olivier Bancoult, the Chagossian community leader who brought the case, said that the verdict was a "historic moment" for the islanders, who are all British citizens.
The islanders were taken to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where many continue to live in slum conditions. A small number - about 250 - have exercised the right to live in Britain.
Mr Bancoult, who left the island of Peros Banhos with his family at the age of four, said: "This judgment brings us closer to a return to our homeland - a place that we, as the descendants of slaves, were packed on boats and banished from, just like slaves."
The judges said they were making no findings about the military objections put forward by the Americans, who complain that people living on the outlying Chagos islands would make its base vulnerable to terrorist attack.Reuse content