US blocks British courts from British soil

by Alice Cuddy, BBC News

Getty Images Diego GarciaGetty Images

According to court documents, the US government has blocked the UK court hearings from taking place on British territory, citing security concerns.

The British Indian Ocean Territory’s (BIOT) highest court was due to hold a hearing this week, attended by the BBC, to ask whether a group of migrants were being illegally detained on the island of Diego Garcia.

The island is home to a secret British and American military base and access is strictly controlled.

According to court documents, the US announced last week that it was “withdrawing consent” to allow lawyers representing the migrants and “media personnel” (BBC) to enter the island.

According to testimony by Biot Deputy Director Nishi Dholakia, the ministry said the hearing participants would not be allowed to travel to Diego Garcia on U.S. military aircraft and would not provide transportation, lodging or meals on the island “until security and operational concerns are adequately addressed.”

The statement said the United States was “ready to reconsider” the request if the visit was conducted “in a manner” that addressed U.S. concerns.

Map showing Diego Garcia

In October 2021, dozens of migrants fleeing persecution and attempting to apply for asylum in Canada arrived on the island after saying their boat had run into trouble near Diego Garcia.

Late last Thursday night, just hours before the judge, British government lawyers, migrant representatives and the BBC were due to board a plane for the first leg of the journey, the court ordered the hearing to be halted.

The U.S. security concerns relate to a site visit planned on the island as part of the hearing, which was due to include a migrant camp and several other areas of Diego Garcia.

In a July 3 communication titled “US Notice to the UK regarding the denial of a visit to Diego Garcia Island by the BIOT Supreme Court from 6 to 12 July 2024,” US officials said the visit “poses a risk to the security and effective operation of the base.”

Court documents filed on behalf of Biot’s commissioners said the island’s U.S. commander’s assessment was “confidential and based on the United States’ own assessment of national security needs.”

Tom Short, a lawyer at British law firm Leigh Day who is representing some of the migrants, said the cancellation of this week’s hearing was a “devastating blow to our vulnerable clients” and called for the hearing to be rescheduled as soon as possible.

A virtual court hearing on Tuesday, attended by lawyers from London and migrants from Diego Garcia, was to determine the future of the case as talks between the British and US governments continue.

Britain took control of the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, from its then colony Mauritius in 1965, and subsequently evicted more than 1,000 residents to make way for a military base.

The 1966 agreement allowed the US to use the territory for an initial 50 years, followed by another 20 years. The agreement was “extended” in 2016 and is now set to expire in 2036, according to Biot’s website.

Biot is administered from London but is considered “constitutionally distinct” from the UK.

Mauritius, which gained independence from Britain in 1968, claims the islands as its territory, and the United Nations’ top court has ruled that British rule there was “illegal” and must end.

Most of Diego Garcia’s personnel and resources are under U.S. control, including the island’s accommodations, transportation, restaurants, and shops.

U.S. military commanders can deny entry to areas operated or controlled by U.S. forces for security reasons.

The exact nature of the security concerns being raised by the US is unclear, but it is understood to relate primarily to “site visits” to be carried out as part of the planned hearings, which will include the migrant camps and several other areas on the island.

Biot’s official website states that access is only permitted to “persons connected to military installations or territorial administration.”

Map showing Diego Garcia military base

Diego Garcia is said to be an important strategic base for the U.S. Earlier this year, two B-52 bombers were sent to the island for training exercises.

In recent decades, U.S. military aircraft have been sent from the base to carry out bombing raids in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The British government has confirmed that a delivery flight landed in the area for refuelling in 2002, but Former CIA Director Mike Hayden denied reports that the facility was used to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects..

In October 2021, dozens of Sri Lankan Tamils ​​landed on the island.They were the first people to apply for asylum in Biot. Around 60 people, including at least 16 children, remain there and a complex legal battle is unfolding over their fate.

They are being held in tents inside a fenced camp and are being guarded by the private security company G4S.

There have been several suicide attempts on the island, and there have also been reports of sexual harassment and assault by migrants in the camps.

Some migrants have been flown to Rwanda for treatment after self-harming or attempting suicide, while those whose applications have been successful wait for a “safe third country” to be found to resettle them.

Diego Garcia Housing Tent HandoutsHandouts

Images previously sent to the BBC by migrants show the tents they are living in on the island of Diego Garcia.

United Nations Representative I visited the camp late last year. They reported that conditions there amounted to arbitrary detention.

In interviews with the BBC, migrants described conditions on the island as hellish.

“We are parrots, we are in a cage,” one person said last year about their lack of freedom.

During the online hearing on Tuesday, one of the migrants on the island appeared to collapse.

The Foreign Office previously told the BBC that the island was not suitable for migrants to live and that it was “working tirelessly to process migrant asylum claims and to find suitable third countries for those whose claims are successful”.

“The welfare and safety of Biot migrants will always be our top priority,” the ministry said earlier this year.

Getty Images A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber takes off from Diego Garcia Air Base on a strike mission to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, October 7, 2001.Getty Images

A U.S. Air Force bomber takes off from Diego Garcia in October 2001.

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