Exiles seek redress from the Government

Roger Pearson reports on how the actions of the British Government 30 years ago may come back to haunt it today.

The Government is facing a potentially embarrassing confrontation over human rights in the High Court with accusations that it "rode roughshod" over the rights of islanders from the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Mr Justice Scott Baker has given the go-ahead for a challenge to be mounted over a move made by the British Government 30 years ago when it sent thousands of Chagos islanders – known as the Ilois – into poverty-stricken exile. The exile is said to have been imposed to pave the way for the construction of the US military base at Diego Garcia.

But now one of the islanders, Louis Bancoult, has won leave to fight for the legal right of the Ilois to return to the islands.

Bancoult, 35, is chairman of the Chagos Refugee Group, based in Mauritius. He claims that after Britain entered into an agreement in the 1960s to allow the US to create the base, the Chagos Islands were cleared of inhabitants who had lived there for five generations.

After the recent hearing, at which leave was given for Bancoult to mount the legal challenge on behalf of himself and his exiled fellow islanders, solicitor Richard Gifford of Sheridans for Bancoult said the injustice suffered by the islanders had gone largely unrecognised for a generation. However, he added that in granting leave for the moves, Mr Justice Scott Baker had recognised that the islanders – some 3,000 to 4,000 of them – had been "dealt with in a roughshod way" when they had been left destitute upon their removal from the islands.

In giving the green light for the move, the judge said: "I am satisfied that the applicant has, at the very least, an arguable case on jurisdiction. In my judgement, the case requires careful consideration of a difficult area of constitutional law."

He said that after the islanders, who on Chagos had lived largely self-sufficient lives as farmers, fishermen and plantation workers, were moved out to Mauritius, many suffered "extreme destitution and malnutrition".

During the application for leave to bring the case, Sydney Kentridge QC for the islanders argued that as citizens of British dependent territories, the islanders had fundamental rights dating back to the Magna Carta, which entitled them not to be banished from their homes.

He rejected arguments by Philip Sales for the Government that the English courts had no jurisdiction to entertain the case put forward by the islanders.