Actress at court 'to see justice' for Gurkhas

Actress Joanna Lumley brought a touch of showbiz glamour to the High Court today as she joined Gurkhas in their battle for the right to settle in Britain.

To the skirl of bagpipes playing Cock o' The North, she walked through a guard of honour of Gurkhas in their traditional hats to the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in London's Strand.

The Ab Fab star then knelt before two veteran Gurkha VC holders in wheelchairs to offer her best wishes in their test case being brought by five Gurkhas and a widow.

"I want to see justice done," she told Lachhiman Gurung, 91, and Tul Bahadur Pun, 86, who served with her father during the Second World War in Burma.

She then told the hundreds of supporters outside the courts which had been turned into a Gurkha stronghold: "I am so happy to be able to lend my support to your cause."

Gurkhas and their wives and families massed outside the courts holding banners reading: "Thirteen Gurkhas won VCs but are banned from the UK" and "We British Gurkhas demand Justice and Equality".

Earlier, the two veterans had posed for pictures holding a Union flag and a portrait of the Queen.

The protest came before a judge will begin hearing a challenge by more than 2,000 British Army Gurkhas to a tribunal ruling on their immigration status.

Gurkhas who retired from the British Army after 1997, when their base was moved from Hong Kong to Kent, can automatically stay in the UK.

But those who retired earlier and whose individual settlement cases were decided by visa officials in Kathmandu and Hong Kong must apply for permission to stay and may be refused and deported.

All other foreign soldiers in the British Army have a right to settle in Britain after four years of service anywhere in the world.

Part of the Government's explanation for refusing settlement rights is that some Gurkhas "lack strong ties with the country".

The Gurkhas have also struggled for many years for equal pension rights which, for those who retired before 1997, are about a quarter of the level paid to those who served after that time.

Three Gurkhas who lost a court challenge on pensions in July this year are taking their case to the Court of Appeal next month.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing the former soldiers and widow, told the judge, Mr Justice Blake, at the start of the two-day court hearing that Britain owes "a special debt" to all Gurkhas.

He said four of those he was representing were refused leave to enter the UK on the grounds of lack of strong ties with the country.

"And the Government policy towards all these Gurkha soldiers discharged before 1997 is that they should not have the right to settle in the UK because when they served this country, the Gurkha Brigade heaquarters was in Hong Kong, and not the UK.

"To say this is to ignore the history of the Gurkhas. And it is to ignore the special debt this country owes to all Gurkhas, past and present, whatever their brigade's location, and whatever their date of discharge."

He said for two centuries Gurkha soldiers have served the Crown and established a reputation as "brave and loyal".

"Gurkha soldiers have won no less than 13 VCs. "

Mr Fitzgerald went on: "So we submit that the Gurkhas, past and present, all alike have 'strong ties' to this country.

"Their long and dedicated service links them inextricably to the people of this country and creates a debt of gratitude and honour.

"What matters is the fact of service, not the location of service.

"However distant their country of origin, whatever the location of their headquarters at a particular moment in history, however remote the battlefields on which they fought and risked their lives and shed their blood, all the Gurkha soldiers, past and present, were fighting for this country.

"This gives them all equally strong ties to this country - to its life and history.

"Against that background, the continuing exclusion of Gurkha soldiers discharged before 1997 from the Armed Forces Concession was, and is, indefensible."

This concession grants the right to settle in the UK to non-UK nationals who have completed four years service in the armed forces.

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