The enforced return of thousands of failed asylum-seekers to Zimbabwe came a step closer after Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, won a crucial court victory.
The Government had to stop removing them six months ago amid claims that they could be harmed, or even executed, if they were deported. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal warned ministers that they would be interrogated by Robert Mugabe's secret police, and their safety threatened, upon their return.
But the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that the tribunal had "erred in law" and ordered it to reconsider test cases involving two Zimbabweans, who can only be identified as AA and LK.
The decision does not mean the expulsion of Zimbabweans will begin immediately but it could follow the next tribunal meeting, in two months' time.
Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said she was dismayed by the ruling. "We should not underestimate the dangers they face - people fleeing to the UK are seen as traitors, and a conviction for treason in Zimbabwe can carry the death penalty."
She called on the Government to "show compassion by ending this legal limbo and restore the moratorium on returning people to Zimbabwe".
Mr Clarke said removing failed asylum-seekers was "fundamental to the integrity of our asylum system", but added that enforced returns to Zimbabwe would not resume until the tribunal reconsidered the case. "The Government remains deeply concerned about the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, and continues to press for an end to abuses... we would not enforce the return of a failed asylum-seeker to Zimbabwe if we believed that they were at real risk of mistreatment."
Last year more than 50 Zimbabweans staged a hunger strike to protest against plans to expel them, saying they were ready to starve to death rather than be returned to the mercy of "Mugabe's torturers". They argued that people returned would automatically be regarded as spies and traitors by the Zimbabwean regime.
As estimated 15,000 Zimbabweans have sought asylum in Britain over the past five years. Only a few hundred have been give permission to settle. About 300 are known to have returned and more than 100 to have been forcibly removed since the Government judged in 2004 that it was safe to resume deportations. Removals were suspended less than a year later as the legal wrangling began over their future.Reuse content