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Racist policy was used to bar Gypsies from Britain

Britain was yesterday found to have adopted policies that discriminated against Roma Gypsies who were trying to escape persecution in their own country.

A panel of law lords ruled that although the Roma had good reason to fear persecution in the Czech Republic, they had been deliberately blocked from flying to Britain in the summer of 2001. The policy was part of a Home Office initiative to cut asylum claims by preventing people, mostly Roma Gypsies, from boarding flights to Britain from the Czech capital, Prague.

Yesterday the civil rights group Liberty said the ruling exposed "racism at the heart of the Government's asylum policy".

Responding to the House of Lords judgment, a Home Office spokesmansaid it would look at the implications of the ruling, but pointed out the controls were no longer in place because Czechs are now entitled to free movement across Europe.

The screening took place at Prague airport in July 2001. At the time there was concern about the number of asylum seekers entering Britain. Those refused "pre-clearance" were effectively prevented from travelling to the UK, because no airline would carry them.

Baroness Hale, sitting along with Lords Bingham, Steyn, Hope and Carswell, said many Roma had good reason to want to leave the Czech Republic because of persecution. But she said they were treated more sceptically than non-Roma passengers by immigration officers "acting on racial grounds".

Lady Hale said immigration officers should have treated all would-be passengers equally, only using more intrusive questioning if there was a specific reason. Liberty said statistics suggested Roma Czechs were 400 times more likely to be stopped by British immigration officials at Prague airport than non-Roma Czechs.

The judgment has badly damaged Britain's record on human rights. Today is International Human Rights Day, so it is a reminder that Britain needs to improve its record. For many lawyers and civil rights groups, Britain's record is now the worst in Europe. The UK is the only EU country to have opted out of the European Convention on Human Rights in order to detain foreign terror suspects indefinitely under new powers granted in emergency legislation after 11 September.

Michael Mansfield QC, a leading human rights barrister, says: "I think that the last calendar year has been one of the worst years for exemplifying the demise of human rights, not only because of what is still happening in Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh [where most of the terror suspects are being held] but because the Government now wants to remove jury trials and the standard of evidential proof against our own nationals. This is a serious diminution of human rights."

Peter Carter QC, the chairman of the Bar's human rights committee, said yesterday that Britain was sending out mixed messages by wanting to contribute to human rights work around the world but without paying proper attention to our own failings.

Despite yesterday's ruling, many politicians still propose getting rid of the Human Rights Act. In the summer David Davies MP committed the Tory party to abolishing this country's guarantor for the protection of fundamental rights.