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Judge says UK abused power over Afghan hijackers

Written by: Staff

LONDON, May 10 (Reuters) London's High Court accused the British government today of ''an abuse of power'' for refusing to allow nine Afghan asylum seekers who hijacked a plane to Britain to stay in the country as refugees.

In a fiercely critical ruling, Judge Jeremy Sullivan overturned the government's decision and said the conduct of the Home Office (interior ministry) deserved ''the strongest mark of the court's disapproval.

''It is difficult to conceive of a clearer case of conspicuous unfairness amounting to an abuse of power by a public authority,'' he said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair attacked the court's ruling, saying ''we can't have a situation'' where Britain could not deport plane hijackers back to their country.

''It's not an abuse of justice for us to order their deportation -- it's an abuse of common sense frankly to be in a position where we can't do this,'' he told reporters.

The nine Afghans, armed with knives and guns, hijacked a Boeing 727 plane in February 2000 after the aircraft left Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul on an internal flight.

They ordered the pilot to fly to Stansted airport near London, where they told negotiators via radio they had fled the Taliban regime and would blow up the plane and kill everybody on board if they were not granted political asylum in Britain.

The High Court ranks third in Britain's legal hierarchy below the Court of Appeal and House of Lords, which is the upper house of parliament and highest court in the country.

Sullivan criticised then Home Secretary Jack Straw and his successors, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, who all failed to grant the Afghans discretionary leave to enter Britain and allowed them only temporary admission.

He said the government had ''defied'' judges and legal procedures and ''deliberately delayed'' implementing a June 2004 appeal panel decision that, under human rights law, the nine could not be sent home because their lives would be at risk.

GOVERNMENT MAY APPEAL Junior Home Office minister Tony McNulty said the government was considering whether to appeal against the decision.

''It is common sense that to deter hijacking and international terrorism, individuals should not be rewarded with leave to remain in the UK,'' he said in a statement.

''The hijackers are not deemed to present a threat to the UK's national security at present and it remains our intention to remove them as soon as it is possible to ensure that they can be returned in safety to Afghanistan.'' Sullivan noted that the Home Office had feared allowing the hijackers to live and work freely in Britain as it would amount to ''a charter for future hijackers''. But he insisted this did not give the ministry a licence to ignore the judiciary.

''The issue in this case is not whether the executive should take action to discourage hijacking, but whether the executive should be required to take such action within the law,'' he said.

He ordered the government to pay legal costs run up by the as hijackers on an ''indemnity basis'' - the highest level of costs that can be awarded.


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