Exclusive: Secret war on enemy within
The Government has secretly ramped up a controversial programme that strips people of their British citizenship on national security grounds – with two of the men subsequently killed by American drone attacks.
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for The Independent has established that since 2010, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has revoked the passports of 16 individuals, many of whom are alleged to have had links to militant or terrorist groups.
Critics of the programme warn that it allows ministers to “wash their hands” of British nationals suspected of terrorism who could be subject to torture and illegal detention abroad.
They add that it also allows those stripped of their citizenship to be killed or “rendered” without any onus on the British Government to intervene.
At least five of those deprived of their UK nationality by the Coalition were born in Britain, and one man had lived in the country for almost 50 years. Those affected have their passports cancelled, and lose their right to enter the UK – making it very difficult to appeal against the Home Secretary’s decision. Last night the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader Simon Hughes said he was writing to Ms May to call for an urgent review into how the law was being implemented.
The leading human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce said the present situation “smacked of mediaeval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary”.
Ian Macdonald QC, the president of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, described the citizenship orders as “sinister”.
“They’re using executive powers and I think they’re using them quite wrongly,” he said. “It’s not open government; it’s closed, and it needs to be exposed.”
Laws were passed in 2002 enabling the Home Secretary to remove the citizenship of any dual nationals who had done something “seriously prejudicial” to the UK, but the power had rarely been used before the current government took office.
The Bureau’s investigation has established the identities of all but four of the 21 British passport holders who have lost their citizenship, and their subsequent fates. Only two have successfully appealed – one of whom has since been extradited to the US.
In many cases those involved cannot be named because of ongoing legal action. The Bureau has also found evidence that government officials act when people are out of the country – on two occasions while on holiday – before cancelling passports and revoking citizenships.
Those targeted include Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen who came to the UK as a baby and grew up in London, but left for Somalia in 2009 with his close friend the British-born Mohamed Sakr, who also held Egyptian nationality.
Both had been the subject of extensive surveillance by British intelligence, with the security services concerned they were involved in terrorist activities.
Once in Somalia, the two reportedly became involved with al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group with links to al-Qa’ida. Mr Berjawi was said to have risen to a senior position in the organisation, with Mr Sakr his “right-hand man”.
In 2010, Theresa May stripped both men of their British nationalities and they soon became targets in an ultimately lethal US manhunt.
In June 2011 Mr Berjawi was wounded in the first known US drone strike in Somalia and last year he was killed by a drone strike – within hours of calling his wife in London to congratulate her on the birth of their first son.
His family have claimed that US forces were able to pinpoint his location by monitoring the call he made to his wife in the UK. Mr Sakr, too, was killed in a US airstrike in February 2012, although his British origins have not been revealed until now.
Mr Sakr’s former UK solicitor said there appeared to be a link between the Home Secretary removing citizenships and subsequent US actions.
“It appears that the process of deprivation of citizenship made it easier for the US to then designate Mr Sakr as an enemy combatant, to whom the UK owes no responsibility whatsoever,” Saghir Hussain said.
Mr Macdonald added that depriving people of their citizenship “means that the British government can completely wash their hands if the security services give information to the Americans who use their drones to track someone and kill them.”
The campaign group CagePrisoners is in touch with many families of those affected. Its executive director Asim Qureshi said the Bureau’s findings were deeply troubling for Britons from an ethnic minority background.
“We all feel just as British as everybody else, and yet just because our parents came from another country, we can be subjected to an arbitrary process where we are no longer members of this country any more,” he said.
“I think that’s extremely dangerous because it will speak to people’s fears about how they’re viewed by their own government, especially when they come from certain areas of the world.”
The Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said that, while he accepted there were often real security concerns, he was worried that those who were innocent of Home Office charges against them and were trying to appeal risked finding themselves in a “political and constitutional limbo”.
“There was clearly always a risk when the law was changed seven years ago that the executive could act to take citizenship away in circumstances that were more frequent or more extensive than those envisaged by ministers at the time,” he said.
“I’m concerned at the growing number of people who appear to have lost their right to citizenship. I plan to write to the Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Select Committee to ask for their assessment of the situation, and for a review of whether the act is working as intended.”
Ms Peirce, a leading immigration defence lawyer, said, “British citizens are being banished from their own country, being stripped of a core part of their identity yet without a single word of explanation of why they have been singled out and dubbed a risk,” she said.
Families are sometimes affected by the Home Secretary’s decisions. Parents may have to choose whether their British children remain in the UK, or join their father in exile abroad.
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