British citizen, British justice?

The British home secretary can deprive of their citizenship individuals whose presence in the UK she deems “not conducive to the public good”. For one man, this has become a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Patrick Galey
17 March 2014

When a British man took a holiday to visit relatives in Pakistan in January 2012, he had every reason to look forward to returning home. He worked full-time at the mobile phone shop beneath his London flat, he had a busy social life and preparations for a family visit were in full flow.

Two years later, the man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is stranded in Pakistan, where he claims he is under threat from the Taliban and is unable to find work to support his wife and three children. He is one of 27 British nationals whose citizenship has been removed since 2006 under secretive government orders, on the grounds that their presence in the UK is “not conducive to the public good”. He is the first to speak publicly about his ordeal.

“My British citizenship was everything to me. I could travel around the world freely,” he said. “That was my identity but now I am nobody.”

Under current legislation, the home secretary, Theresa May, has the power to strip dual nationals of their British citizenship if their presence is deemed thus “not conducive” or if their nationality was gained fraudulently. May recently won a Commons vote paving the way to allow her to strip the citizenship of foreign-born or naturalised UK nationals even if it rendered them stateless. Amendments to the Immigration Bill—including the controversial article 60 concerning statelessness—are being tabled this week in the House of Lords.

A Bureau of Investigative Journalism investigation in December 2013 revealed that 20 British nationals had been stripped of their citizenship last year—more than in the previous two and a half years since the Conservative-dominated coalition had been elected—with eight of the decisions taken on “not conducive” grounds. Since 2006, when the current laws came into force, 27 orders have been made on such premises, targeting individuals suspected of involvement in extremist activities. The home secretary often makes her decision when the individual concerned is outside the UK, and, in at least one case, deliberately waited for a British national to go on holiday before revoking his citizenship.

The only legal recourse available to those subject to these decisions, which are taken without judicial approval, is a formal appeal to the Special Immigration and Asylum Committee (SIAC), where evidence can be heard in secret, within 28 days of the order being made. These appeals can take years to conclude, leaving individuals—the vast majority of whom have never been charged with an offence—stranded abroad. The process has been compared to “medieval exile” by the leading human-rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.


The man, who is referred to in court documents as E2, was born in Afghanistan and still holds Afghan citizenship. He claimed asylum in Britain in 1999, having fled the Taliban regime in Kabul, and was granted indefinite leave to remain. In 2009 he became a British citizen. While his immediate family remained in Pakistan, E2 came to London, where he worked and became integrated in the local community.

‘I worked and I learned English,’ he said. ‘Even now I see myself as a British. If anyone asks me, I tell them that I am British.’ But, as of March 28th 2012, E2 is no longer a British citizen.

E2 boarded a flight to Kabul in January 2012 to visit relatives in Afghanistan and his wife and children in Pakistan. A letter from the UK Border Agency, carrying May’s signature, was subsequently sent to his south-east London address, saying he had been deprived of his British nationality.

In evidence that remains secret even from him, E2 was accused of involvement in “Islamist extremism” and deemed a “national security” threat. He denies the allegation and says he has never participated in extremist activity. The home secretary wrote: “My decision has been taken in part reliance on information which, in my opinion, should not be made public in the interest of national security and because disclosure would be contrary to the public interest.”

E2 says he had no way of knowing his citizenship had been removed and that the first he heard of the decision was when he was met by a British embassy official at Dubai airport, on his way back to the UK, on May 25th 2012—well after his appeal window had shut. His lawyer appealed anyway, submitting to the SIAC: “Save for written correspondence to the Appellant's last known address in the UK expressly stating that he has 28 days to appeal, ie acknowledging that he was not in the UK, no steps were taken to contact the Appellant by email, telephone or in person until an official from the British Embassy met him at Dubai airport and took his passport from him.”

The Home Office disputed that E2 had been unaware of the order against him and a judge declared himself satisfied, “on the balance of probabilities”, that E2 had known about the removal of his citizenship. After spending 18 hours in an airport cell, he was made to board a flight back to Kabul. He has remained in Afghanistan and Pakistan since. It was from Pakistan that he agreed to speak to the bureau last month.

Daniel Carey, who is representing E2 in a fresh appeal to the SIAC, said: “The practice of waiting until a citizen leaves the UK before depriving them of citizenship, and then opposing them when they appeal out of time, is an intentional attack on citizens’ due process rights. By bending an unfair system to its will the government is getting worryingly close to a system of citizenship by executive fiat.”

While rules governing hearings at the SIAC mean some evidence against E2 cannot be disclosed—again on grounds of “national security”—the bureau has been able to corroborate key aspects of his version of events, including his best guess as to why his citizenship was stripped. His story revolves around an incident that occurred thousands of miles away from his London home several years earlier.


In November 2008, an Afghan national, Zia ul-Haq Ahadi, was kidnapped as he left the home of his infirm mother in Peshawar, Pakistan. The event might have gone unnoticed were he not the brother of Afghanistan’s then finance minister and former presidential hopeful, Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi. Anwar intervened and, after 13 months of tortuous negotiations with the kidnappers, a ransom was paid and Zia released. E2 claims to have been the man who drove a key negotiator to the kidnappers.

While the bureau has not been able to confirm whether E2 played the role he claimed in the release, a source with detailed knowledge of the kidnapping said he was “willing to give [E2] some benefit of the doubt because there are elements of truth [in his version of events]”. The source confirmed a man matching E2’s description had been involved in the negotiations.

“We didn’t know officially who the group was, but they were the kidnappers. I didn’t know whether they were with the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban,” E2 said. “After releasing the abducted person I came back to London.”

E2 guesses—since not even his lawyers have seen specific evidence against him—that it was this activity that brought him to the attention of British intelligence. Travelling between London and Afghanistan/Pakistan to visit relatives four times between the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2012, he was repeatedly stopped.

“MI5 questioned me for three or four hours each time I came to London at Heathrow airport. They said people like me [Pashtun Afghans] go to Waziristan and from there you start fighting with British and US soldiers,” he said.

“The very last time [I was questioned] was years after the [kidnapping]. I was asked to a Metropolitan Police station in London. They showed me pictures of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [former Afghan prime minister and militant with links to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP)], along with other leaders and Taliban commanders. They said: ‘You know these guys.’”

E2 says if the government was so certain of his involvement in extremism it should allow him to stand trial in a criminal court.

E2 claims he was shown a photo of his wife—a highly intrusive action in conservative Pashtun culture—as well as one of someone he was told was Sirajuddin Haqqani, commander of the Haqqani Network, one of the most lethal TTP-allied groups. “They said I met him, that I was talking to him and I have connections with him. I said that’s wrong. I told [my interrogator] that you can call [Anwar al-Ahady] and he will explain that he sent me to Waziristan and that I found and released his brother. I don’t know Sirajuddin Haqqani and I didn’t meet him.”

The Haqqani Network, which operates in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas and across the border in Afghanistan, was designated a terrorist organisation by the United States in September 2012. It has claimed responsibility for a score of attacks against Afghan, Pakistani and NATO forces. The UN accuses Sirajuddin Haqqani of being “actively involved in the planning and execution of attacks targeting International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), Afghan officials and civilians”.

E2 says he has no idea whether Haqqani was involved in Zia’s kidnapping. But he believes the security services may have started investigating him when he visited a mosque in North Waziristan: “The imam had lunch with us and he was with me while I was waiting for my father-in-law. I didn’t take his number but I gave him mine. That imam often called me on my shop’s BT telephone line [in London]. These calls put me in trouble.”

If E2’s version of events is accurate, it would mean he gained his British citizenship while he was negotiating Zia’s release. He lost it less than three years later.

The Home Office offered a boilerplate response to the bureau’s questions: “The home secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.” It said it did not comment on individual cases.

Living in fear

E2 says that in Pakistan he lives in fear for his safety. Since word spread that he lost his UK nationality, locals assume he is guilty, which he says puts him at risk of attack from the Pakistani security forces. Conversely, he says his family has received threats from the Taliban for his interaction with MI5.

“People back in Afghanistan know that my British passport was revoked because I was accused of working with the Taliban. I can’t visit my relatives and I am an easy target to others,” he said. “Without the British passport here, whether [by] the government or Taliban, we can be executed easily.”

E2 is not alone in fearing for his life after being exiled from Britain. Two British nationals stripped of their citizenship in 2010 were killed a year later by a US drone strike in Somalia. A third Briton, Mahdi Hashi, disappeared from east Africa after having his citizenship revoked in June 2012, only to appear in a US court after being rendered from Djibouti.

E2 says if the government was so certain of his involvement in extremism it should allow him to stand trial in a criminal court.

“When somebody’s citizenship is revoked if he is criminal he should be put in jail, otherwise he should be free and should have his passport returned,” he said. “My message [to Theresa May] is that my citizenship was revoked illegally. It’s wrong that only by sending a letter that your citizenship is revoked.

“What kind of democracy is that?”

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