Leading article: When the public purse is hijacked to pursue a vindictive vendetta

Anyone who cares for our civil liberties will be uncomfortable with the way the Government has acted towards these men
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It is now six years since nine desperate Afghans seized control of a flight leaving Kabul and forced the plane to fly to Britain, but their case continues to make headlines. The Government lost a battle in the Court of Appeal yesterday to curb the rights of the nine men involved in the hijacking, sparking indignation from the Home Secretary John Reid. No doubt a barrage of vitriol at the decision from the right-wing press will follow today.

The men in question were convicted of hijacking in a British court six years ago, but cleared on appeal in 2003. There is no doubt that they did indeed hijack the plane. But it was eventually ruled that they took this action under duress, fearing for their lives if they remained in Afghanistan. The next year an adjudication panel ruled that under the European Convention on Human Rights the men could not be sent back to Afghanistan because their lives would be endangered. These were both perfectly sensible decisions. Yet the Government, egged on by the populist press, has done everything in its power to undermine both verdicts in the past three years, spending £10m of public money in the process.

The latest attempt came from the present Home Secretary, John Reid, who argued that immigration law allowed him to grant the men "temporary leave to remain" rather than normal refugee status. If Mr Reid had been successful, this would have denied them the right to work and "curbed their freedoms" in a number of other ways. Thankfully, he was not.

The vindictive drive against these men comes from the very top. In May, Tony Blair described the decision not to send the men back to Afghanistan as "an abuse of common sense". The Prime Minister has taken a personal interest in this case. There is glaring hypocrisy here. The Taliban were in power in Afghanistan when this hijacking took place. This was a regime so vile that the United States won broad backing from the international community, including Britain, to remove it from power the very next year. How can our Government argue that the Taliban were vicious oppressors while at the same time rejecting the idea that these men might have been so afraid for their lives that they resorted to desperate measures to escape?

We should worry about the Government's hypocrisy, but also its methods. The full weight of the executive has been used to make life difficult for these men. Successive home secretaries have tried to subject the men to travel restrictions and surveillance, despite the fact that they are not criminals or terror suspects. Attempts have been made to intimidate the judiciary into deporting them. So far, all this has been rebuffed. But anyone who cares for our civil liberties will be uncomfortable with the way the Government has acted.

This case also highlights a broader injustice. Is there any more irrational and unjust restriction in modern Britain than the law preventing asylum-seekers from working while waiting for their cases to be decided? If asylum-seekers are such a burden on society, as this Government appears to believe, why not allow them to pay their own way? Why force them to live off benefits? Surely the Government should be encouraging these nine men to work, not going out of its way to prevent them from doing so.

Their ordeal is by no means over. Mr Reid is planning to change the law to crack down on what he terms "undesirable" asylum-seekers, a category that will include these men. Hypocrisy and vindictiveness have characterised the Government's response to this case from the start. And there are, sadly, no signs that supplies of either are running out.