WE WILL FIGHT UNTIL WE RETURN TO OUR ISLANDS – say Chagossians

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Angry Chagossians with their banner demanding return to Diego Garcia as they picket Downing Street
Angry Chagossians with their banner demanding return to Diego Garcia as they picket Downing Street

OVER 150 Chagos Islanders and their supporters – including a delegation of Chagossians who had flown from Mauritius – were at the House of Lords on Tuesday morning, to hear the Law Lords judgement on their right to return home.

They were dismayed and angry when they were told the Law Lords had decided by a 3-2 majority in favour of the British government’s decision to banish them from their own homeland in the Indian Ocean.

The Law Lords ruling overturned the previous judgements in the islanders’ favour.

Gianny Stevens said his parents had been forced from Peros Banhos island, and told News Line: ‘It’s very bad because, if you are thinking about human rights, what is meant by human rights if you move people from their homes and islands to build a military base.

‘But we will continue our fight,’ he said.

‘We will continue until we return to all our islands including Diego Garcia.’

Chris Martin, producer of the film ‘Stealing a Nation’, said: ‘I think it’s outrageous and totally cynical.

‘I think everyone should support these islanders to get back home.’

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who had come to support the islanders, said: ‘This is a very sad day for the Chagos Islanders who were brutally removed from their islands.

‘The Law Lords delivered a majority verdict, but this isn’t the end of the story.

‘I know the Chagos Islanders are going to fight on until justice is obtained.’

Most of the islanders had to wait in the visitors hall inside parliament, after being told there was not enough room for them at a press conference in the Jubilee Room, where legal expert Richard Gifford and Chagos Refugees Group chairman Olivier Bancoult, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, journalist John Pilger and former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, reacted to the judgement.

Richard Gifford said the two dissenting judges in the House of Lords had decided ‘it was beyond the power of government to abrogate such a fundamental right as the right to return to one’s homeland’.

Gifford added: ‘It is important to emphasise these two dissenting judgements, not just because they reflect the case put forward by the islanders but also because they reflect the seven previous judgements.’

He told reporters: ‘We now have a considerable body of jurisprudence condemning the treatment of the Chagos Islanders over the last 40 years.’

Olivier Bancoult told reporters: ‘This is a very sad day for the Chagossian community.

‘Even though the High Court of Justice has given three judgements in our favour, the Law Lords have not understood our position.’

He said there were now ‘two categories’ of people in regards to human rights.

‘Some are eligible to have access to their homeland and some – the Chagossian people – are not.’

He said that since being sent into exile, the Chagossians have been ‘living in huge poverty in the Seychelles and Mauritius’.

He added: ‘Most of our native people, day by day, are disappearing, and nothing is being done to solve this problem.

‘Instead, the government prefers to pay huge sums of money to fight this legal case and banish the Chagossian people.

‘But we Chagos Islanders will not give up.

‘I want to appeal to everyone here in Britain to continue to support us.

‘We have lost this case, but we have to continue and we will carry on by whatever alternatives we can.

‘But it is a very sad day. A very deep sadness for all Chagossian people, barred from their fundamental rights to return to their homeland and the future generations who would like to see where their grandparents were born.’

He continued: ‘The Magna Carta says no one should be exiled. Everyone has the right to live in their birthplace.’

‘You will never walk alone!’ shouted a member of the audience.

Former High Commissioner David Snoxell said he had been in Mauritius at the time of the ‘Orders in Council’ in 2004 that banished the Chagossian people from ever returning to their islands and quashed the decision of the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who restored their right to return in 2000.

‘I had expected the Law Lords to unanimously endorse the right to return,’ Snoxell said.

He quoted the actress Joanna Lumley who spoke outside the High Court following the recent case of the British Gurkhas, about righting ‘a great wrong’ and wiping out ‘a national shame that has stained us all’.

‘But what has happened in the judicial system is not the end of the road,’ he continued.

He said that it should not have been the prerogative of a ‘small group of officials in the Foreign Office in 2004’ to make decisions about the fate of the Chagos Islanders and that the ‘Orders in Council’ were an abrogation of ‘the fundamental human rights of British nationals in overseas territories’.

Even bodies like the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had said there was a ‘strong moral case’ for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to permit and support a return to the islands.

And the United Nations human rights committee had called on the British government to ‘ensure the Chagossians can exercise their right of return’ and pay them compensation for denying them that right over an extended period of time.

Snoxell added that now that the legal process had been exhausted ‘officials can no longer hide behind sub-judice’ when being asked to explain the way the Chagossians were evicted from their islands.

And he said he expected the Foreign Secretary to make an announcement in parliament in a matter of days or weeks ‘about what he intends to do’.

Journalist John Pilger paid tribute ‘to Olivier Bancoult and his comrades and all the Chagossian people’.

‘To see their struggle at close hand is really to be inspired,’ he told reporters.

He said the Chagossians reflected ‘the best of humanity’.

‘The worst of humanity are those who reside in the Foreign Office, and I don’t say that lightly,’ he continued.

He said that reading declassified documents from the 1960s and 1970s about how the Chagos Islanders were forcibly removed from their homeland left him in ‘no doubt’ about ‘the essential immorality of the people writing them’.

He quoted a 1968 document titled ‘Maintaining the Fiction’, by a ‘Mr Ost’ (a chief legal adviser, then ‘in his twenties’), which described the Chagos Islanders as ‘a floating population’, when they had actually been living on the islands for centuries.

‘The documents are a training manual on how great power literally lies,’ Pilger said.

He added that seven judges had already described the removal of the islanders, to make way for a US military base, as ‘shameful’, ‘shabby’, ‘repugnant’, ‘illegal’ and ‘outrageous’.

Pilger continued: ‘This was a political judgement today.

‘There is no question about that, when the courts in this country have found time and again against this flagrant injustice.

‘For these three Law Lords to get up and dispatch the people of the Chagos Islands to some kind of suspension in history is a grave immoral act.

‘In Diego Garcia – as the Foreign Secretary has admitted – so-called American rendition flights have been through there, and an interrogation and torture centre now exists and foreign planes have now bombed Afghanistan and Iraq.

‘The judgement ratifies this basic illegality.’

All the speakers at the press conference condemned the large sums of money the government had spent fighting the Chagos Islanders in the courts, while they have been left in poverty and destitution.

Olivier Bancoult declared: ‘We have more and more strength to continue because of the injustice that has been done to the Chagossians.

‘We can’t accept it, or there could be another people like the Chagossians.

‘On our birthplace, we have foreigners living and yet we are exiled in foreign countries.

‘All other 13 British Overseas Territories are getting very good treatment from the British government, but the Chagos Islanders are still suffering.

‘I think the British government would prefer to let them die, instead of finding a solution.

‘I believe the strength of Chagossian ladies is still here and together we must reach our destiny and together we will win and we will be in our birthplace.

‘We will never give up. What we are fighting for is a just cause and we need your help and I make an appeal to everyone to continue to support our struggle until that day. we will be able to return and our fundamental rights and dignity will be recognised.’

Chagossians left parliament to demonstrate opposite the House of Lords and then marched to Downing Street, where Hengride Permal, chairwoman of the Chagos Islands Community Association based in Britain, delivered a letter for Prime Minister Brown.

Frankie Bontemps, a member of the exiled Chagossian community, told News Line: ‘It’s disgraceful what’s happened today.

‘We have had three successive High Court judgements in our favour and I don’t understand how they can reach this conclusion today.

‘How can they support the government’s appeal when all right is on our side.

‘I think right now that these lords are only political puppets in the hands of the US and British governments.

‘But anyway, our struggle goes on and we have to build up a big struggle with the support of all the trade unions and they are already supporting us.

‘It is 40 years since this struggle began and we will continue.

‘Look at these people, they are natives of the Chagos Islands and they are still fighting on, still struggling.’

Hengride Permal told reporters outside parliament, the islanders ‘were put on a boat and sent to the Seychelles and Mauritius.

‘Our families have been divided,’ she said.

‘Our relatives have come to visit us in the UK and have been deported from the airport!

‘The Chagossian people have suffered for over 40 years now. It is unfair. Enough is enough.

‘And lots of our people don’t speak English and it has been a very, very hard life for them here.

‘We have housing problems. We are faced with private landlords, when they have taken our homes and made us homeless.

‘They have to take responsibility now. Enough is enough.’

The Chagossians picketed outside Downing Street, demanding their immediate return to their islands, shouting: ‘We will return to Diego Garcia!’

Senior GMB organiser Paul Maloney told News Line: ‘The whole of the labour and trade union movement has to show its disgust at today’s verdict.

‘There has to be a major demonstration in London, whether it be in Trafalgar Square, a march to Downing Street or on parliament.’

He added: ‘We’ve been involved in a number of events over a number of years now, fighting for justice for a group of vulnerable people who’ve been removed from their homeland for world aggression.

‘Many of them are GMB members working at Gatwick Airport.

‘BAA, through contracting out services, are driving wages down and using these forced migrants to fill the poverty vacuum.’

Joni McDougall, GMB international solidarity officer, said: ‘This is a terrible miscarriage of justice, but I think I understand why they’ve decided in this way and it’s to do with imperialism.’

Chagossian Lucette Martin said: ‘I don’t know how many came from Mauritius today. Maybe 10, as well as hundreds of us from Crawley, and they would only let one of us in. There is no justice.’

Hayes and Harlington Labour MP John McDonnell told News Line: ‘This is a disgraceful decision that flies in the face of all human rights and common decency.

‘We will continue to fight for their right to return.

‘We need support right across the labour and trade union movement. I would certainly support a demonstration.’

George Wuthrich said: ‘I’ve come from Switzerland for today’s judgement.

‘I know that there will be great sadness among the Chagossians in Switzerland at today’s judgement and a terrible feeling of injustice.’

The angry Chagos Islanders picketed outside Downing Street demanding their immediate return to their islands, shouting: ‘We will return to Diego Garcia!’

Nicole Besage told News Line: ‘These ladies are natives of the Chagos Islands. There is nothing for them.

‘We will continue our fight until we win.’

Hengride Permal told News Line: ‘We have come here to Downing Street to deliver a letter to Gordon Brown.

‘He needs to meet with all the Chagossian representative groups to come up with a solution, what needs to be done for the Chagossians, our return home, and to give the Chagossians the compensation for their pain and suffering for over 40 years during the exile time in the Seychelles and Mauritius.

‘My message is the government has been wasting the taxpayers’ money and still they have not done the right thing and the British public and British workers need to urge the British government to right the wrong that has been done to the Chagos people.

‘We want to have the right to return home to all of our islands, including Diego Garcia, and the military base removed from there.

‘Native people, they are dying.

‘The British government needs to hurry up with this.

‘They have to give us our humanitarian rights.’

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