LONDON (Reuters) - In a hidden corner room of Britain’s Royal Courts of Justice, filled by lawyers in wigs and nervous Indian Ocean islanders, black-robed law lords this week handed victory to David over Goliath.
It may not be the last bout in a tortuous 40-year struggle by residents of to return to Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Chagos archipelago turned into a strategic U.S. military base, but it certainly brought that prospect closer.
In a decision handed down by the law lord in charge of appeals, the Master of the Rolls Sir Anthony Clarke, flanked on his dais by two equally grave judges, it was decreed the British government had abused its power when it evicted the Chagossians four decades ago. The Chagossians could go home.
“The freedom to return to one’s homeland, however poor and barren the conditions of life ... (is) one of the most fundamental liberties known to human beings,” read the decision.
There was a ripple of excitement in court, though the 20 or so Chagossians at the back were remarkably restrained, perhaps unsure they had understood correctly the highfalutin legalese.
But then their lawyer, softly spoken and saber-sharp Sir Sydney Kentridge, 84, rose cautiously to his feet, adjusted his white, horse-hair wig slightly on his head, and gently explained that yes, indeed, the islanders had won.
“In theory they can go home,” he said, adding wisely: “although I can’t think it’s going to be easy to get there.”
Starting in 1966 and for the following five years, the British government steadily removed around 2,000 islanders from Diego Garcia and two other Chagos atolls, Peros Banhos and Salomon, to allow the Americans to build their military base.
The removals were made clandestinely, with islanders taken on trips to Mauritius and the Seychelles with little more than hand luggage and then told there was no way of getting back.
Abandoned with barely any means of support, many of them ended up in poverty, crime and destitution, their skills as fishermen and coconut farmers next to useless in the more urbanized environment of their new homes.
Diego Garcia, meanwhile, was leased by Britain to the United States for 50 years — until 2016 — and turned into a crucial U.S. military hub, especially for bombers and spy planes.
While incredibly remote — it sits around 1,000 miles south of India — the base has been used to conduct air campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now regarded by Washington as an essential part of its global security network.
Because of the peculiar shape of the atoll — about 35 miles
long and 15 miles wide — the Americans have dubbed it the “Footprint of Freedom” and are determined not to give it up — or even let anyone anywhere near it.
Not only do they not want the islanders to return to Diego Garcia, but for “security reasons” they do not want them returning to Peros Banhos or Salomon either, even though those atolls are between 60 and 100 miles away.
Yet, if this week’s court decision is not overturned — the British government has one more appeal, to the House of Lords, and must decide in the next month if it wants to take that risk after three defeats — the Chagossians will have won outright.
They may never be able to live in Diego Garcia itself — that was always made off-limits — but Peros Banhos and Salomon, idyllic, palm-tree-laden atolls fringed by crystal waters and coral reefs, would be theirs to live in once again.
Of the 2,000 or so Chagossians removed in the 1960s, only about 500 are still alive. Together with their descendants, the total Chagos Islander population stands at around 4,500.
While most remain in Mauritius or the Seychelles, some have been granted British citizenship and tried to make the most of their lives in the land of their erstwhile colonial masters.
Roch Evenor, 50, left Diego Garcia with his parents when he was four-years-old. For most of the past 45 years he has lived in Britain, where he works for the National Health Service.
His standard of living may be far better than Chagossians in Mauritius, but like the others the desire burns within him to return to — or even just see — the land of his forefathers.
The Chagossians regard themselves as one family and reverence of their ancestors is very important in their culture. All those in court with Evenor this week said their priority when they got back to Chagos would be to tend the graves of their parents and grandparents, left abandoned for decades.
They also believe that no matter how remote, rundown or underdeveloped the islands may now be, they can be turned into a paradise that will attract tourists from the world over.
Solomon Prosper, a baby when he left Diego Garcia in 1970, now a meteorologist in London, knows where he would rather be.
“There, people don’t think like they do here — we have a different mentality. You feel the sand on your feet, and the sun on your face. It’s a completely different life.”