LONDON (Reuters) - The people of the Chagos Islands, driven from their balmy Indian Ocean home by Britain more than 40 years ago, won a resounding court victory on Wednesday that could see them return as soon as they can plan a trip.
The High Court dismissed an appeal by the Foreign Office against their return, saying the right to go home was “one of the most fundamental liberties known to human beings”.
The Chagossians were removed from their palm-fringed archipelago during the Cold War when Britain granted permission to the United States to build an air and naval base on the largest atoll, Diego Garcia.
Diego Garcia has since been used in U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the British government has argued that on security grounds it would not be right for the Chagossians to be allowed home.
In its ruling, the High Court also said the government should not be allowed to appeal any longer, having lost three times in various courts, but would leave that decision to the House of Lords.
Pending any appeal, Wednesday’s decision means surviving members of the 2,000 Chagossians originally removed, and their descendants, could return as soon as they can organise a trip -- not an easy challenge given the remoteness of the islands.
Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, who has driven the campaign to win the right to return, emerged from court beaming and his fingers held up in a victory sign.
He said his priority now was to go home as soon as possible and tend the graves of his ancestors.
“I’m very happy for my people,” he told reporters.
“It’s always been my dream to go home and I will go. We will go back and we will live there and make Chagos great.”
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the court’s decision. The foreign minister will “consider the judgment carefully”, she said, before deciding whether to seek an appeal in the House of Lords.
Much of the forced removal of the Chagossians was done clandestinely, with the people secretly resettled in nearby Mauritius and the Seychelles, in an operation that one U.S. newspaper described at the time as an “act of mass kidnapping”.
Some of the original Chagossians and their descendants have been granted British citizenship and now live in Britain.
While their income and lifestyle might in some respects be better than it would have been had they remained on the islands, a desire to see their homeland burns inside them.
Roch Evenor, 50, left Diego Garcia with his parents when he was four years old. He’s lived in the Seychelles, but now lives in Britain, where he works for the National Health Service.
He was elated by Wednesday’s decision and said he hoped to return “within days”, although it’s likely to take a lot longer.
After 45 years away, he said the first thing he would do was “kiss the soil”, but after that, the hard work would begin.
“Everything is depleted, everything is broken down,” he said. “The cemetery is not well tended, and that is the first thing we must fix for our families and ancestors.”
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