The Real Risk

No. 19 of #50cases.

Nobody said upholding human rights is easy. It involves questions which go to heart of what it means to be a civilised society. Here’s one. Torture is wrong. I think we can agree about that. But, should the government be able to deport somebody, even if they know they will be at risk of torture or death in their home country?

This was the question facing the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Indian citizen Karamjit Chahal. Mr Chahal was married with two children, and had lived in the UK for twenty-five years. Following the rise of Sikh nationalism in the 1980s, he had become involved in Indian politics from his home in London. Although Mr Chahal had no criminal record, the UK government considered him to be a risk to national security. They served him a notice of deportation in 1990, held him in custody while he fought the decision and refused to tell him on what specific evidence this was based. He was not even allowed to be represented by a lawyer, and instead had to represent himself before an ‘advisory panel’. Rather than hearing the result of this process, he had to wait instead for the Home Secretary’s final decision.

Mr Chahal took his case to the European Court, arguing that he faced a real threat of persecution if returned to India. He was able to produce evidence showing that other prominent Sikh nationalists had been killed or ‘disappeared’ by the Punjabi police. The court ruled that the UK was in breach of the right to be protected against torture. They said that this was an absolute right, and could not be compromised under any circumstances. They also criticised the ‘advisory panel’ process as unfair, and in breach of Mr. Chahal’s right to have his detention reviewed by a court.

So, it’s thanks to Mr Chahal that the UK can’t send immigrants home if they are at a real risk of being tortured– and it’s also thanks to him that decisions like this can’t be made without being checked by a court first. Meanwhile, the debate over the Chahal case still rages almost twenty years later. Should we be sending people into the arms of torturers? What if they are terrorists? Where does our responsibility as a civilised state begin and end? Human rights laws ensure that we have, at least, to face the questions.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

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