The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found evidence that the UK home secretary, Theresa May, deliberately waited for a terror suspect to leave the country before revoking his British citizenship.
The move, described by the suspect’s lawyer as an abuse of the minister’s powers, followed the advice of a Home Office official. He wrote to May: “When [the suspect] leaves the UK, he should be deprived of his British citizenship.” In a witness statement presented to the Court of Appeal, the official explained to the home secretary that waiting until the suspect, referred to in court as L1, had gone abroad voluntarily before removing his citizenship enabled her to avoid having to deport him, which could have led to him remaining in the UK for “a period of years” while he fought legal appeals.
The revelation flies in the face of a statement by the security minister, James Brokenshire, addressing MPs earlier this week in a Westminster Hall debate about an amendment to the Immigration Bill. He said: It is true that people have been deprived while outside the UK, but I do not accept that it is a particular tactic. It is simply an operational reality that in some cases the information comes to light when the person is outside the UK or that it is the final piece of the picture, confirming what has been suspected. In other cases, we may determine that the most appropriate response to the actions of an individual is to deprive that person while they are outside the UK.
The current laws allow the home secretary to remove the citizenship of any dual national—including those born inside the UK—without warning or judicial approval. Since these were passed in 2006, research by the bureau has established that 40 orders have been issued. Now, May is seeking an amendment to the bill that would allow her to strip UK nationality from naturalised or foreign-born individuals, even if they have no other nationality, effectively rendering them stateless.
The home secretary often signs exclusion orders at the same time, preventing the individuals from returning to the UK. This means that those affected—and sometimes their families too—are stranded overseas, lacking the protections of British citizenship as they fight appeals that can stretch for years.
L1 came to the UK from Sudan as an asylum-seeker in 1991 and became British in 2003. The process of removing his citizenship dates back to the Labour government. The Court of Appeal judgment in July 2013 shows that in mid-2009, while he was in Sudan for the summer, the Home Office was at an “advanced stage” of planning to remove his UK nationality. But the plan was shelved, he having returned to the UK before the notification was dispatched. He does not appear to have been charged with any crime or put under any Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures and remained at liberty for the next 10 months, before leaving again in July 2010 of his own volition.
Four days later, the home secretary issued notification that his citizenship was to be revoked. This left L1 stranded in Sudan. His wife, also Sudanese, lost her right to remain in the UK and his four children—all British citizens and all aged under 10 at the time of the order—are effectively exiled too. L1's lawyers claim the home secretary's decision to wait until he was out if the country was an abuse of her powers, as it “appeared to constitute a deliberate manipulation ... for the purpose of obstructing [L1's] statutory right of appeal or making it more difficult to exercise”, as Lord Justice Laws noted last year in his written judgment.
The Home Office told the bureau it did not comment on individual cases. It has previously declined to disclose the number of UK citizens stripped of their nationality while abroad, on grounds of “national security”. In a statement that closely resembled those provided on at least four previous occasions, a spokeswoman said: “Those who threaten this country's security put us all at risk. This government will take all necessary steps to protect the public. Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the home secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.”
She also denied that the department had a policy of waiting until individuals were outside the UK before removing their citizenship. But research by the bureau has further found that of the 18 individuals it has identified who have had their UK nationality removed since 2006 at least 15 were known to be abroad when the orders were issued. Mohammed Sakr and Bilal al-Berjawi were killed in US drone strikes in Somalia. Mahdi Hashi was rendered to the United States where he is awaiting trial in a high-security jail.
Speaking in the parliamentary debate, the Labour MP Diane Abbott noted that debate around citizenship-stripping often failed to presume the innocence of individuals who had not faced criminal charges. “We are talking about terror suspects. Nowadays in Parliament, saying that someone is suspected of terrorist activity is enough for the political class to assume that that person does not deserve due process,” she said.
A lawyer who has represented Sakr, Berjawi and Hashi, and one other individual referred to in court as Y1, told the bureau: “All four had their notice [of deprivation of citizenship] sent to them while they were out the country and with all four there were serious problems getting legal instructions to them to appeal against this stripping. It’s extremely difficult when they are outside [the UK]. The process of obtaining legal aid takes months and only very few lawyers are able or willing to work for free.”
The security minister also told MPs that British suspects who had their nationality stripped under the new plans might have the right to remain in the UK. Suspects subjected to new orders being proposed by the home secretary could stay in Britain until “they have acquired another nationality”, he said. Brokenshire added that individuals made stateless under new legislation while in the UK would have the opportunity to seek a second nationality before facing extradition.
“Some [suspects] may be able to acquire or reacquire another nationality. In those cases where the individual has been deprived [of their citizenship] while in the UK we would seek to remove that individual from the UK once they have acquired another nationality,” he said. “Where appropriate we could regularise a person’s position in the UK by granting limited leave, possibly with conditions relating to access to public funds and their right to work and study.”
Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda, questioned whether rendering people stateless would benefit security: “Potentially, the only countries that would offer nationality to a person reckoned to be a suspected terrorist would be countries where we probably would not want that person to end up, because they would by definition be countries that sponsor terrorism.” But Brokenshire insisted:
‘We recognise the need to avoid statelessness and are committed to maintaining our international obligations. However, we do not believe that that should be at a cost to the national security of the UK.”