Passport cancelled: the Coalition government has stripped 16 people of their British citizenship. (Image: Shutterstock)
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published in 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 also 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 government 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 the Home Secretary’s decision.
Last night the Liberal Democrat’s deputy leader Simon Hughes said he was writing to the Home Secretary 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 medieval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary’.
Ian Macdonald QC, 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 because in my view it’s a real overriding of open government and the rule of law.’
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.
The Bureau’s investigations have 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.
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In many cases those involved cannot be named because of ongoing legal action.
Ian Macdonald QC
The Bureau has also found evidence that government officials act when people are out of the country – on two occasions while on holiday – 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 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, an Islamist militant group with links to al Qaeda. Berjawi was said to have risen to a senior position in the organisation, with 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 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.
Sakr, too, was killed in a US airstrike in February 2012, although his British origins have not been revealed until now.
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 Sakr as an enemy combatant, to whom the UK owes no responsibility whatsoever,’ Saghir Hussain told the Bureau.
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.’
Campaign group CagePrisoners is in touch with many families of those affected. 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.’
Related story: When being born British isn’t enough
Liberal Democrat 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 a 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 in recent years. I plan to write to the Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Select Committee to ask for their assessment of the situation, the policy both in general and in detail, and for a review of whether the act working as intended.’
Gareth Peirce said the present situation ‘smacked of medieval exile’.
‘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.
In a case known only as L1, a Sudanese-British man took his four British children on summer holiday to Sudan, along with his wife, who had limited leave to remain in the UK. Four days after his departure, Theresa May decided to strip him of his citizenship.
With their father excluded from the UK and their mother’s lack of permanent right to remain, the order effectively blocks the children from growing up in Britain.At the time of the order the children were aged eight to 13 months.The judge, despite recognising their right to be brought up in Britain, ruled that the grounds on which their father’s citizenship was revoked ‘outweighed’ the rights of the children.
Mr Justice Mitting, sitting in the semi-secret Special Immigration Appeals Commission, said: ‘We accept that it is unlikely to be in the best interests of the Appellant’s children that he should be deprived of his British citizenship… They are British citizens, with a right of abode in the United Kingdom.
‘They are of an age when that right cannot, in practice, be enjoyed if both of their parents cannot return to the United Kingdom.’
Yet he added that Theresa May was ‘unlikely to have made that decision without substantial and plausible grounds’.
In another case, a man born in Newcastle in 1963 and three of his London-born sons all lost their citizenship two years ago while in Pakistan.
An expert witness told Siac, the semi-secretive court which hears deprivation appeals, that those in the family’s situation may be at risk from the country’s government agencies and militant groups. Yet Siac recently ruled that the UK ‘owed no obligation’ to those at risk of ‘any subsequent act of the Pakistani state or of non-state actors [militant groups] in Pakistan’.
Ian Macdonald QC
The mother, herself a naturalised British citizen, now wants to return here in the interests of her youngest son, who has developmental needs. Although 15, he is said to be ‘dependent upon [his mother and father] for emotional and practical support’. His mother claimed he ‘has no hope of education in Pakistan’. But the mother has diabetes and mobility problems that mean she ‘does not feel able to return on her own, with or without [her son].’
Mr Justice Mitting ruled that the deprivation of citizenship of the family’s father had ‘undoubtedly had an impact on the private and family life of his wife and youngest son, both of whom remain British citizens’.
But he added that the father posed such a threat to national security that the ‘unavoidable incidental impact’ on his wife and youngest son was ‘justifiable’, and dismissed the appeal.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘Citizenship is a privilege not a right. The Home Secretary has the power to remove citizenship from individuals where she considers it is conducive to the public good. An individual subject to deprivation can appeal to the courts.’
She added: ‘We don’t routinely comment on individual deprivation cases.’
Asked whether intelligence was provided to foreign governments, she said: ‘We don’t comment on intelligence issues. Drone strikes are a matter for the states concerned.’
A law unto herself: How the Home Secretary has the power to strip British citizenship
The Home Secretary has sole power to remove an individual’s British citizenship. The decision does not have to be referred through the courts.
From the moment the Home Secretary signs a deprivation of citizenship order, the individual ceases to be a British subject – their passport is cancelled, they lose the diplomatic protections Britain extends to its citizens, and they must apply for a visa to re-enter the country.
The Home Secretary can only deprive an individual of their citizenship if they are dual nationals. The power cannot be used if by removing British citizenship it renders an individual stateless.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May can use the power whenever she deems it ‘conducive to the public good’. She can act based on what she believes someone might do, rather than based on past acts.
The only way to challenge an order is through retrospective appeal. Where the deprivation is on national-security grounds, as in almost every known case, appeals go to the semi-secret Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac).
Siac hears sensitive, intelligence-based evidence in ‘closed’ proceedings – where an individual and their legal team cannot learn the detail of the evidence against them. Instead, a special advocate – a carefully vetted barrister – challenges the government’s account. But once they have seen the secret material they cannot speak with the defendant without the court’s permission, making cross-examination ‘pretty useless’, in the words of former special advocate Ian Macdonald.
Related article: The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) explained
The government has long been able to remove the citizenship of those who acquired it in cases such as treason, but the power to do so to British-born individuals was introduced after 9/11 in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. This allowed the Home Secretary to strip the nationality of those who had ‘done anything seriously prejudicial’ to the country. At that point, no deprivation order had been issued since 1973.
Following the July 7 bombings, the law changed again, so citizenship could be stripped if it is deemed ‘conducive to the public good’. Conservative MPs called this a ‘watered-down test’ – but the Conservative-led coalition government has embraced the power, issuing over three times as many orders as under Labour.