The Government cannot deport "undesirable" or "dangerous" immigrants who may face ill-treatment at home - however bad their crimes in the UK, human rights judges ruled today.
In a test case ahead of more than 200 similar actions pending against the UK, the Strasbourg judges decreed that the UK's duty to protect people against torture or inhuman treatment is "absolute".
The case involved two Somalis facing enforced return to Mogadishu after receiving convictions in the UK for serious criminal offences.
The European Court of Human Rights awarded Abdisamad Adow Sufi and Abdiaziz Ibrahim Elmi, both currently in UK immigration detention centres, 14,500 euros and 7,500 euro respectively for costs and expenses in bringing the case.
Sufi, 24, claimed asylum in the UK in 2003 on the grounds that he belonged to a minority clan persecuted by Somali militia. His account was rejected as not credible and asylum refused.
Elmi, 42, arrived in the UK in 1988 and was granted leave to stay as a refugee in 1989, renewed indefinitely in 1993.
After convictions for a number of serious criminal offences - including burglary and threats to kill in Sufi's case, and robbery and supplying class A drugs cocaine and heroine in Elmi's case - they were issued with deportation orders. Their UK appeals that they risked being ill-treated or killed if returned to Mogadishu were rejected.
The European Court of Human Rights blocked their deportation pending a hearing of their appeals to the Strasbourg court.
Today the seven-judge court ruled unanimously that deporting them would breach the Human Rights Convention Article 3 which bans "inhuman or degrading treatment".
The ruling said: "The court reiterated that the prohibition of torture and of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is absolute, irrespective of the victims' conduct.
"Consequently, the applicants' behaviour, however undesirable or dangerous, could not be taken into account."
The judges said no one disputed that, towards the end of 2008, Mogadishu was not a safe place to live for the majority of its citizens. The situation had deteriorated since then.
The ruling cited the UK's own Asylum and Immigration Tribunal which acknowledged the dangers, while saying it was possible that individuals with connections to powerful people in Mogadishu might be able to live there safely. Anyone else being returned would face a real risk of persecution or serious harm, although those whose home area was in any part of southern and central Somalia might be able to go back in safety and without undue hardship.
Human Rights Watch described the situation in Mogadishu as "one of the world's worst human rights catastrophes".
The judges concluded that the general level of violence in Mogadishu "was of sufficient intensity to pose a real risk of treatment in breach of Article 3 to anyone in the capital".
The judgment described the case as the "lead case" against the UK, with 214 similar cases pending before the same court.