A minister has been accused of giving false information to MPs grilling him on why the Home Office allegedly violated a court order to deport an Afghan asylum seeker.
A High Court judge said the Government had committed “prima facie contempt of court” by forcing Samim Bigzad onto a flight to Kabul after receiving an injunction ordering his immediate return to the UK.
But asked why the Home Office breached the order, immigration minister Brandon Lewis denied any violation took place.
“The Home Office was not found in contempt of court and it had followed through with exactly what was in the outline from the court,” he told a Home Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday.
“If I remember correctly, the court said we had to make every effort [to stop the deportation] but actually at that point the individual was already on the aircraft, the doors were shut, which goes beyond what the court was asking for.”
Mr Lewis’ claim that the doors of the connecting flight that took Mr Bigzad from Istanbul to Kabul matches neither the asylum seeker’s own account or a witness statement by the Home Office official in charge of his removal on 12 September.
Mr Bigzad previously told The Independent the plane’s doors were open and stairs down when guards were notified, telling how they took him to the exit before receiving a second call ordering them to stay put.
In a witness statement submitted to the High Court, immigration returns official Martin Waspe made no claim the plane’s doors were shut, instead claiming there were other practical obstructions to removing Mr Bigzad as it prepared for take-off in Istanbul.
Mr Waspe said contracted Tascor guards were told the deportation was being halted on legal grounds at 10.12pm and started negotiations with the plane’s crew to see if disembarkation was possible.
His witness statement claimed that delaying the plane could “cause a major operational issue” for Turkish Airlines, adding: “I was also aware that Mr Bigzad had checked-in baggage – in my experience this would cause significant delay to the aircraft.”
Mr Waspe’s chaotic account of events claimed that the head of Immigration Enforcement National Removals Command was not aware of the injunction but that the Home Office Command and Control Unit had received it at 10pm and called Tascor guards to “request an abort”.
“Before it was possible to enact support from Turkish Airlines given the presence of a very late injunction so close to departure, I was informed by Tascor officers that the flight had pushed back from the departure pier at 10.22pm,” Mr Waspe said.
Asked by Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill whether checked baggage was sufficient reason to press ahead with the deportation, Mr Lewis repeated his claim about the doors.
“My understanding is that the plane and the plane doors were actually shut, which went beyond what the court order was asking us to do,” he said.
It was the Home Office’s second attempt to deport Mr Bigzad – after the first was thwarted by a pilot who refused to fly with him on board – and officials eliminated opportunities for lawyers or campaigners to prevent him leaving from Gatwick Airport.
He was taken from the Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, where the abuse of migrants by G4S guards has recently been exposed, with no warning and forced on a morning flight to Istanbul.
During the journey and wait for the connecting flight to Kabul, Mr Bigzad’s lawyers managed to secure an emergency injunction by 10pm – half an hour before the plane was due to take off.
Mr Bigzad had boarded the plane but received a message from his case worker while waiting on the tarmac at 10.10pm saying the injunction had come through and that he would be returned to the UK.
“I was on the plane but the door was open,” he told The Independent in September. “One of the guards had a call from the Home Office saying ‘the judge stopped this guy and we’re turning back’.
“After that he told me I was going back, so I said ok. We were trying to get off the plane and he had another call to say ‘stop’.
“I was at the top of the stairs, I was there. Then there was a second call, the Home Office said ‘you’re going back to Kabul’… so we went back on the plane.”
Mr Bigzad was later flown back to Britain after the Home Office lost a four-hour hearing at the Court of Appeal, having spent five days in fear for his life at a hotel.
His lawyers are now attempting to bring formal contempt of court proceedings against the Government and the saga prompted calls for Amber Rudd to be sacked or even jailed.
Representatives of Duncan Lewis solicitors expressed surprise at Brandon Lewis’s claims, arguing that the obligation to stop Mr Bigzad’s deportation would not have stopped even if the plane’s doors were closed.
His solicitor, Jamie Bell, said he was “concerned” about the immigration minister’s responses before the Home Affairs Committee, which came during a separate judicial review.
“It is for the courts to determine whether the Home Secretary acted in contempt of court by removing Samim, despite an order staying his removal, and by subsequently failing to return him to the UK,” he added.
“It is not appropriate for the minister to use this platform to comment on ongoing litigation in which serious allegations have been made against the conduct of the Home Secretary.
“We also would stress that some of the details given by the minister are substantially different from what we have been previously told by Home Office and from what our client has told us.”
When challenged on the factual basis for Mr Lewis’ claims, a spokesperson for the Home Office said no comment could be made during ongoing legal proceedings.
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