Reid pledge on Afghan hijackers

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Indy Politics

The Government is to try to overturn a High Court ruling that nine Afghan asylum seekers who hijacked a plane to Britain could not be deported, Home Secretary John Reid confirmed today.

He described the ruling as "inexplicable" in a Downing Street statement which mirrored Prime Minister Tony Blair's outrage over the situation.

Yesterday Mr Justice Sullivan ruled that the nine could stay in the UK until it was safe for them to return home and accused the Home Office of "an abuse of power by a public authority at the highest level".

The nine Afghans hijacked a Boeing 727 on an internal flight in Afghanistan in February 2000 and forced the crew to fly to Stansted in Essex. They were fleeing the Taliban regime.

They cannot be named for legal reasons.

The Government's unprecedented clash with the courts arose after successive home secretaries determined that the nine should not be seen to benefit from their actions and create a "hijackers' charter".

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said: "We are disappointed with the court's judgment and are considering whether it is appropriate to appeal.

"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.

"The hijackers are not deemed to present a threat to the UK's national security at present and it remains our intention to remove them as soon as it is possible to ensure that they can be returned in safety to Afghanistan."

The scene is now set for a worsening relationship between the Government and the judiciary amid continuing controversy over the Government's anti-terrorism laws.

Mr Justice Sullivan ordered the Home Secretary to pay legal costs on an indemnity basis - the highest possible level - to "mark the court's strongest disapproval".

In an unusual move Mr Blair hit back by describing the ruling as "an abuse of common-sense".

"This is absolutely central," he told reporters in Downing Street.

"We can't have a situation in which people who hijack a plane we are not able to deport back to their country.

"It is not an abuse of justice for us to order their deportation. It is an abuse of common-sense, frankly, to be in a position where we can't do this."

In an attempt to ensure the nine should not be seen to benefit from their actions, they were kept under strict immigration controls and unable to work.

In December 2001 all nine were convicted of hijacking, false imprisonment, possessing firearms with intent to cause fear of violence and possessing explosives.

In June 2003 their convictions were quashed by the Appeal Court which found they had been acting under duress.

A panel of adjudicators ruled in June 2004 that deporting them to Afghanistan would breach their human rights as their lives could still be in danger.

As a result of the panel's decision, lawyers for the nine argued that they were entitled to have leave to enter the country to live and work and take care of their families.

David Blunkett was Home Secretary at the time and his spokesman described the panel decision as "mind boggling", while Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said it was "crazy".

There was a long period in which the nine remained in limbo, with no leave to enter being given.

They were eventually granted only "temporary admission" in November 2005 by the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Just a few months earlier he had introduced a new asylum policy and used it to deny them indefinite leave to enter on the grounds that it would not be "appropriate" because of the hijacking.

His decision to grant only temporary admission meant the nine and their families could not work or travel abroad, but had to rely on state hand-outs, obey strict conditions of residence and report regularly to the immigration authorities.

They complained that being unable to get on with their lives was causing them stress and anxiety-related illnesses.

On Wednesday, Mr Justice Sullivan, sitting in London, quashed the 2005 decision as unlawful.

He said: "For a period of nearly 17 months the Home Secretary deliberately delayed giving effect to the adjudicators' decision in order to give himself time to devise a revised policy which would purportedly justify not implementing the adjudicators' decision.

"It is difficult to conceive of a clearer case of 'conspicuous unfairness amounting to an abuse of power' by a public authority.

"It is particularly disturbing that this was not simply the conduct of a junior official - the process was authorised 'at the highest level'."

The judge added: "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."

He ordered the current Home Secretary, John Reid, to grant the nine "discretionary leave" to remain in the UK, subject to review every six months.

It is understood the permission will be renewed half-yearly until they can safely return home without risk of harm and a breach of their Article 2 "right to life" under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lawyers for the family said the decision means, subject to any appeal, that the nine and their families will now be able to take up employment and "get on with their lives".

There had been lack of co-operation and candid disclosure, and solicitors for the nine had been met with a "wall of silence" when they tried to obtain an explanation for the delays which had occurred, said the judge.

There was a failure to comply with court rules "at every stage".