UK court rules against evicted Chagos islanders

AP News
Posted: Jun 11, 2013 9:03 AM

LONDON (AP) — Indian Ocean islanders who were forced into exile to make way for a key U.S. military base lost a legal ruling Tuesday in their long-running campaign to return home.

The High Court in London ruled that the British government can establish the world's largest marine reserve around the Chagos Islands.

Britain forced thousands of people to leave the tropical archipelago, a British colony, in the 1960s and 1970s so that the U.S. military could build an air base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.

The islanders, who have fought a long and unsuccessful legal battle for the right to return, claim the marine reserve is being created to block them.

But two High Court judges accepted the British government's argument that the reserve was being created for environmental and conservation purposes.

Lord Justice Stephen Richards said the circumstances needed to explain any other reason "would provide an unconvincing plot for a novel."

He and John Mitting, another justice, ruled that the reserve was compatible with European Union law.

Conservationists say the marine reserve, which covers almost 250,000 square miles (640,000 square kilometers) of ocean and islands, will allow scientific research and the preservation of coral reefs and an estimated 60 endangered species.

To support their claim of another motive, lawyers for the islanders cited a diplomatic cable leaked by the secret-spilling site WikiLeaks.

The cable quotes senior British official Colin Roberts as telling diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in London in May 2009 that the marine park would keep the Chagossians from returning and mean "no human footprints" or "Man Fridays" on the islands.

The insulting phrase echoes an infamous 1966 British government note in which a civil servant referred to the occupants of the islands as "some few Tarzans and Man Fridays."

Under questioning, Roberts said he would never have used the phrase, but refused to answer specific questions about the authenticity and accuracy of the cable.

After legal argument, the judges ruled that the Diplomatic Privileges Act meant the cable was not admissible as evidence.

The eviction of the islanders from their home halfway between Africa and Southeast Asia has long been controversial for Britain.

The government has expressed regret for the treatment of the islanders, but has blocked their attempts to return.

The key obstacle is the strategically important Diego Garcia base, which has supported U.S. military operations from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 the U.S. acknowledged it also had been used for clandestine rendition flights of terrorist suspects.