Zimbabwean wins test case to stay in Britain

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The Independent Online

The man, who can only be identified by the initials A A, would face a "real risk of serious harm" if he were forcibly returned to President Robert Mugabe's regime, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal said yesterday. In highly embarrassing comments that will open a fresh rift between the Government and the judiciary, the tribunal attacked Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, for his "alarming" lack of interest in the fate of Zimbabweans returned home.

Although the Home Office is preparing to appeal against the ruling, it looks certain to halt planned deportations to Zimbabwe. The decision also leaves a question mark over whether failed asylum-seekers can be forcibly returned to other unstable areas.

Tony McNulty, the Immigration Minister, admitted that the decision - amounting to a blanket ban on deportations to Zimbabwe - drove a "coach and horses" through the policy of deciding asylum cases on their individual merits.

rotestors - some of them asylum-seekers who went on hunger strike in June - hugged one another and cheered outside.

The tribunal chairman, Mark Ockelton, said it was "exceedingly surprising" the Home Office had failed to trace deportees or to provide any evidence that their safety had been adequately monitored. It found that the Home Office unwittingly allowed President Mugabe's secret police, the CIO, "immediate access" to everyone deported from Britain.

Mr Ockelton also questioned the impartiality of an investigation by Home Office civil servants into conditions awaiting returnees, saying it "gives rise to the possibility... that the investigators may have had existing policy in mind rather than the discovery of new facts".

The failed asylum seeker's lawyers successfully argued that returnees were regarded as "traitors" and "Blair's spies" by the Mugabe regime. The tribunal found that, although the asylum seeker had been "deliberately dishonest" with the British authorities, the fact that he had spent time in the UK would put him at risk were he to be expelled.

"He has a well-founded fear of persecution... if he is returned to Zimbabwe," the tribunal decided. "The fact that the appellant made a false claim, so generating the risk which would otherwise not have existed, does not alter the fact that the real risk of serious harm exists now."

Tim Finch, of the Refugee Council, said: "It's a very clear ruling and its implication is clear for all the other failed asylum-seekers from Zimbabwe.

"It is a credit to those 140-odd Zimbabweans who staged a hunger strike while in detention this summer, who forced this issue to the top of the agenda."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Failed asylum seekers have no right to remain in the UK and we continue to expect them to return. We will continue to provide protection through the asylum system to Zimbabweans who genuinely have a well-founded fear of persecution. But failed asylum seekers whose claims have been found on appeal to be false are not in this position."

The Home Office now fears the decision could provide a "pull-factor" to Zimbabweans, who will believe they cannot be removed if they can reach Britain. It is also worried that lawyers from failed asylum-seekers awaiting deportation to such regions as Somalia and northern Iraq could use the Zimbabwe ruling as the basis of an appeal.

Last year, 2,065 Zimbabweans claimed asylum in the UK, many from what Amnesty International terms Zimbabwe's "catastrophic" record on human rights. The Government has refused to disclose the total number of Zimbabweans who face deportation.

Crispin Kulinji, an MDC organiser in Harare who fled to Britain after being beaten and tortured by the secret police, welcomed the news but said his compatriots were not complacent: "We've won this battle but the war goes on. If the Home Office appeals then we all face deportation."

He said he still feared being sent back. "I left because about 40 soldiers and police came: they sexually assaulted my mum, beat my sister and took me away to a base. They were using electric irons and cables all over my body, asking me questions about the MDC. Then they took me to the bush nearby and beat me to hell."

He said that the hunger strike by asylum seekers in the summer, which highlighted their plight, meant they faced an increased threat if they were now returned. "The publicity means there is a very high risk if they are deported," he said. "Everyone seeking asylum in the UK is the number one target for Robert Mugabe and they should be given protection.

"But for the moment we can celebrate. This shows the British judiciary is independent. So far so good."