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  January 22, 2002  

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US B-52 base at Diego Garcia under legal attack

By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - The sprawling US military base at Diego Garcia, home to the giant B-52 bombers that have been pounding Afghanistan for the past three months, is under siege. Its attackers are some 500 surviving former residents of the atoll, part of the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, who were among those evicted from their homes by Britain and the United States some 30-35 years ago and deposited, virtually penniless, in Mauritius, almost 2,000 kilometers away.

The battlefield, however, is even farther away: the federal courthouse in Washington, DC, where former residents and several thousand of their descendants have sued the US government for reparations and the right to return to their homeland.

A class action against the government and specific individuals, including Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessors, who held high office at the time of the removal and at other key periods during their exile, was filed here last month by three named Chagossians on behalf of some 4,000 original residents and their descendants, most of whom have lived in abject poverty in the slums of Port Louis for more than 25 years.

The charges range from trespass to violations of international conventions covering forced relocation, racial discrimination, torture, and genocide. The plaintiffs, who are represented by lawyer Michael Tigar and a human-rights law clinic at the Washington College of Law at American University here, are hoping to take advantage of a ruling by the British High Court in November 2000 that London acted unlawfully in evicting the islanders and that they should be permitted to return. "This case builds on the British judgment, which established a principle and also helped develop the basic facts," Tigar told IPS.

As uncovered in the British case, those facts show that both London, the colonial power, and Washington, which in 1964 negotiated a 50-year lease for use of the islands in exchange for a US$14 million discount on a missile program, deliberately misled the United Nations and their own legislative bodies about the islands' inhabitants. They insisted that the Chagossians, also called the Ilois, consisted entirely of seasonal contract workers from Mauritius and Seychelles and were thus not indigenous to the islands.

Internal British documents disclosed, however, that the Foreign Office knew that the islands had been continuously inhabited for at least 200 years and that most of the residents at the time were descendants of slaves brought from Africa and indentured workers from India to work the copra plantations first established by the French, who surrendered the islands to the British after the Napoleonic Wars.

Most Chagossians overnight became citizens of Mauritius, whose government was quietly paid some $5 million not to object. London arranged to have others become citizens of Seychelles.

From 1965 to 1973, the Chagossians were removed from their homes, while the United States began building what would become its most important naval and air base in the Indian Ocean, virtually equidistant from Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and, of course, Afghanistan.

According to the complaint, the expulsion was carried out in three phases. First, residents who left the islands for other destinations were not permitted to return. In the second phase, London closed the plantations and cut the flow of food and medical supplies to the islands to encourage emigration. The remaining Chagossians were finally rounded up and boarded onto overcrowded ships, which deposited some in Seychelles and most in Mauritius.

While the exiles were left to fend for themselves in countries already suffering high levels of unemployment, the US Navy and its contractors transformed Diego Garcia into a giant communications and military base, destroying virtually all traces of Chagossian life there. They also banned Chagossians from returning to the islands, even as temporary construction workers, at the same time that hundreds of workers from Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines were hired to build and expand the base, according to the complaint.

"Why should people from Singapore and the Philippines and elsewhere be allowed to go to work on Diego Garcia, and we are not allowed [to] return home to our motherland?" asked Olivier Bancoult, one of the plaintiffs, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation after the High Court's judgment. "We have a fundamental right to return even if there is an agreement between America and the UK."

Born in 1964, Bancoult traveled with his family to Mauritius in 1967 to seek medical treatment for a serious injury. When they tried to return home several months later, they were informed that no more ships traveled there and that the islands had been sold, according to the complaint. "The family was left to fend for themselves - with no compensation, no food and no advice on relocation."

A second plaintiff, Marie Therese Mein, now 68, was one of those forced on to a ship in the latter stages of the relocation. US officials, she claims, told the remaining residents they would be bombed if they did not leave. She also blames a miscarriage on the six-day voyage to Mauritius. The overcrowding, the heat, and the filth made the passage exceptionally harsh, she said, adding that horses that were transported on the same ship were fed, while the Chagossians had to make do with what little they were permitted to bring with them.

In addition to the US government itself, defendants in the case include virtually all of the defense secretaries, beginning with Robert McNamara, who served in the post in the mid-1960s, to Rumsfeld, who served in the mid-1970s when the deportations were completed. It also includes Halliburton Co, an oil-supply company. Its subsidiary Brown & Root did much of the construction on the islands. Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's chief from 1995-2000, although he is not a named defendant.

The plaintiffs are clearly hoping that the case will bolster their efforts to negotiate a settlement that would include reparations and rights to return to their homeland - issues that the British government is also considering in light of the High Court's 2000 judgment. Despite the British judgment, Washington has resisted negotiations, according to Tigar. Indeed, included among the defendants in the new case is Eric Newsome, who headed the State Department's office of Political Military Affairs from 1998-2000. According to the complaint, he actively discouraged the Foreign Office from permitting the Chagoosians to return to any of the Chagos Islands as part of a settlement of the British case.

"The US government has not shown any disposition to negotiate at this time, but we remain hopeful," Tigar said.

(Inter Press Service)

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