Afghan hijackers stay in UK after ruling hits Home Office

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A High Court judge has accused three successive Home Secretaries of an "abuse of power" as he granted nine Afghans who hijacked a plane to Britain leave to stay in the country.

Mr Justice Sullivan said the Home Office had "deliberately delayed" acting upon a decision two years ago that the nine should not be sent back to Afghanistan because their lives would be at risk.

He said the Government's failure to grant refugee status to the nine men had been "conspicuous unfairness amounting to an abuse of power". He made an unprecedented order that the Home Office should pay legal costs at the highest level possible to show his "disquiet and concern".

The nine Afghans hijacked a Boeing 727 on an internal flight from Kabul and forced the crew to fly to Stansted where they held the plane for 70 hours before giving themselves up.

The nine were convicted in December 2001 of hijacking, false imprisonment, possessing firearms with intent to cause fear of violence and possessing explosives, but the convictions were overturned in 2003 by an appeal court which found they had acted under duress.

Successive Home Secretaries have refused to grant the Afghans leave to enter the UK. They were allowed only temporary admission, amid fears that granting them permission to stay in Britain would represent a "hijackers' charter".

The nine were forced to live in London with restrictions placed on their movements. They were unable to work and remained dependent on state benefits..

Mr Justice Sullivan yesterday ruled that John Reid, the Home Secretary, should grant the nine discretionary leave to remain in the UK, subject to review every six months. He said: "It is difficult to conceive of a clearer case of conspicuous unfairness amounting to an abuse of power. Lest there be any misunderstanding, the issue in this case is not whether the executive should take action to discourage hijacking, but whether the executive should be required to take such action within the law as laid down by Parliament and the courts."

The Home Office is considering an appeal. Tony McNulty, the Immigration Minister, said: "It is common sense that to deter hijacking and international terrorism, individuals should not be rewarded with leave to remain in the UK.

"That is why the Home Office introduced a policy that, depending on the circumstances of the case, enabled the Secretary of State not to grant leave of any sort to people who are excluded from international protection and instead keep them on temporary admission.

He said the Home Office would remove them as soon as they could be returned in safety to Afghanistan.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, criticised the decision: "I think it is frankly wrong when we are doing so much as a country, and when our armed forces are doing so much, to make Afghanistan a safer country and a stable county that decisions like these are made," he said. "That is really what people will be thinking up and down this country. We have done so much to help stabilise Afghanistan. Why then do we have decisions like this?"

A spokesman for Hammersmith and Fulham Community Law Centre, which represented the nine Afghans, said: "This is unfortunately another example of where the Home Office is prepared to ride roughshod over individuals' legal and human rights under political pressure. We are glad that the court has recognised that such delay is unlawful."