UK can strip terror suspects of citizenship, European judges rule

Human rights court rejects claim by Sudan-born man who was barred from returning to UK under Theresa May’s policy

European human rights judges have ruled that Theresa May’s policy of stripping British terror suspects of their citizenship while abroad to bar them from returning to Britain is lawful.

Judges at the European court of human rights (ECHR) unanimously threw out a claim by a Sudan-born terror suspect who took UK citizenship in 2000 that depriving him of his British passport violated his right to a private and family life.

The ECHR ruling also dismissed the man’s claim that he could not properly appeal against the decision from abroad because he feared that his communications with his lawyers would be intercepted by the Sudanese counter-terrorism authorities.

The Strasbourg judges said May, the home secretary at the time, had “acted swiftly and diligently, and in accordance with the law”.

The claimant, who was a British citizen for 10 years and grew up in the country, was stripped of his passport while he was in Sudan. The judges said it was disputed whether he had travelled directly to Sudan from the UK or whether he went via Somalia with two “extremist associates, where he engaged in terrorism-related activities linked to al-Shabaab”.

The Strasbourg human rights ruling is likely to encourage Home Office ministers to make greater use of their power to exclude terror suspects even if they are British citizens.

Figures collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published last June showed that at least 33 people had been stripped of their British nationality on terrorism-related grounds since May was home secretary in 2010. All of those had been dual nationals, meaning no one had yet been left “stateless” through the use of the power.

Ministers had made little use of the power, enshrined in the British Nationality Act 1981, until it became more widely used to deal with British citizens returning from fighting in Syria. In 2014, the power was extended from covering just dual nationals to those who “there were reasonable grounds to consider that they could be eligible for another nationality”. The extension was criticised on the grounds that it could breach international obligations by leaving people stateless.

Thursday’s ECHR ruling involved a Sudanese-born man identified only in the court papers as K2. He arrived in Britain as a child and became a naturalised British citizen in 2000.

In 2009, he was arrested and charged with a public order offence but he left Britain before he was required to surrender to bail. The Home Office claims that he first travelled to Somalia “where he engaged in terrorism-related activities linked to al-Shabaab”.

While he was in Sudan, May made an order on 14 June 2010 depriving him of his UK citizenship and a separate order to exclude him from Britain because of his alleged terrorism-related activities and links to extremists.

An appeal against his exclusion was launched in the British courts but the supreme court dismissed his claim in 2013. A separate appeal was lodged against the loss of his British passport in the special immigration appeals commission. Their ruling that he could stay in contact with lawyers through discreet means such as email or Skype was upheld by the court of appeal.

The Home Office welcomed the court’s judgment: “Citizenship is a privilege not a right and it is right that the home secretary can deprive an individual of their citizenship where it is believed it is conducive to the public good to do so.”

Thursday’s ruling comes as the latest official statistics show that the number of people imprisoned for terrorism-related offences in Britain reached a high of 183 on 31 December 2016 – an increase of 40 on the previous year.

The figures show that one in three terror suspects arrested in Britain last year was white, making up 91 out of a total 260 individuals held on suspicion of terrorism-related offences. This was 20 higher than in 2015 and the highest tally for a calendar year since 2003.

However, the number of arrests for terrorism-related offences fell by 8% in 2016 to 260 from 282 in 2015.

Arrests for “domestic” terrorism more than doubled from 15 to 35, accounting for one in eight arrests. Domestic terrorism refers to activity where there are no links to either Northern Ireland-related or international terrorism.

The figures show a 30% fall in the use of counter-terrorism powers at the UK border: 19,355 people were “stopped and examined” at airports and seaports.


Alan Travis Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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