Posted on July 15, 2004

Hijackers Allowed To Stay

Philip Johnston, Telegraph (UK), Jul. 14

Nine Afghan gunmen who hijacked an airliner four years ago and forced it to fly to London have been told they can stay in Britain with their wives and children.

After a secret court hearing, immigration adjudicators refused them asylum but ruled that they could not be deported because their human rights would be infringed.

David Davis, the shadow secretary, described the ruling as “crazy” last night on the grounds that it sent the wrong signals to others tempted to use hijackings to claim asylum.

The gunmen’s continued presence is a severe embarrassment to the Government, which promised to block any asylum applications by those on the plane.

Jack Straw, then Secretary, said: “I am utterly determined that nobody should consider that there can be any benefit in hijacking.”

A Number 10 spokesman said at the time: “You cannot have a situation where a signal can be sent to anybody that the way to get asylum is through hijacking a plane.”

The hijackers seized a Boeing 727 on an internal flight from Kabul in February 2000. Armed with guns and explosives, they held the plane at Stansted Airport for 70 hours surrounded by police and SAS before giving themselves up.

They were jailed at the Old Bailey the following year for hijack, false imprisonment, possessing firearms with intent to cause fear of violence and possessing explosives.

But their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal last summer. The judges ruled that the law relating to whether the men had acted under duress had been wrongly applied at their trial.

Since then, the Government has been fighting to throw them out of the country.

The Office said last night it intended to appeal but it is now increasingly likely that the hijackers and their families will be allowed to stay indefinitely in Britain.

Of the 170 people on the plane, 89 returned voluntarily to Afghanistan and 22, including 13 dependants, have been granted asylum. A further 25 are awaiting the outcome of appeals and other legal procedures that have cost at least 20 million pounds.

The remaining 34 are the hijackers, their wives and children, who have been resettled in rent-free housing in west London and receive benefits.

Mr Davis said last night: “We are all baffled at this outcome. It seems crazy that asylum seekers can hijack a plane and yet be allowed to stay in this country.”

He added: “We are not opposed to people applying for asylum, but there are genuine law abiding ways of doing so. This isn’t one of them. It sends the wrong signals out and puts peoples’ backs up.”

There was a similar outcome to the hijacking in 1996 of a Sudanese Airbus en route from Khartoum to Jordan. Six Iraqis who forced the plane to land in London were jailed, but their sentences were later quashed and they have remained in the country with their families.

Twenty years ago, three members of a gang that hijacked a Tanzanian airliner were allowed to stay in Britain after their release from prison.

The Afghan hijackers’ case went before the Immigration Appellate Authority, which hears appeals against decisions made by the Office in asylum and immigration matters.

Normally, there is a presumption that the hearings are held in public but in this case a request was made for a private session.

The hijackers have been refused the protection of the 1951 United Nations refugee convention because of the circumstances in which they came to this country.

But the adjudicators ruled that under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights the hijackers could not be deported. The article prohibits a signatory returning anyone to a country where they might be “subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

Although the Taliban no longer run Afghanistan, lawyers apparently argued that the hijackers were in danger from “Taliban elements who could target them”.

A Office spoksman said: “We are naturally disappointed by the second part of this ruling and have launched an appeal.”

The hijackers said at their trial that they were peaceful people driven to violent action by the circumstances in which they and their families lived.