Chris Woods and Alice K Ross / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – 2013-06-04 02:32:54
Parents of British Man Killed by US Drone Blame UK Government
Chris Woods / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
I’ll never stop blaming the British government for what they did to my son. They broke my family’s back. Mohamed was everything to us.’
I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that something here in Britain would happen like this, especially as Mohamed had no other passport, no other nationality. He was brought up here, all his life is here.’
For the kids it never crossed my mind that they would have anything other than their British passports. I know they are British, born British, they are British, and carried their British passports.’
LONDON (March 15, 2013) — The parents of a British-born man killed by a US drone strike after being stripped of his UK citizenship have spoken out for the first time — to say they will never forgive the British Government for his death.
Mohamed Sakr was born and brought up in London before he was targeted and killed in February 2012 in Somalia.
Now his Egyptian-born parents Gamal and Eman Sakr, who have lived in Britain for 35 years, have accused ministers of betraying this country’s democratic values.
Speaking to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from their London home, the couple said they believe their son was left vulnerable to the attack after the government stripped him of his British citizenship months before he was killed.
“This is the hardest time we have ever come across in our family life,’ Mr. Sakr said in tears. “I’ll never stop blaming the British government for what they did to my son. They broke my family’s back.”
The comments follow the revelations by the Bureau and published in the Independent that the Home Secretary Theresa May has ramped up the use of powers allowing her to strip UK citizenship from dual nationals without first proving wrongdoing in the courts.
The investigation revealed the Coalition government has stripped 16 people, including five born in Britain, of their UK passports. Two, including Sakr, were later killed by drone strikes and one was secretly rendered to the United States.
The law states that the government cannot make someone stateless when it removes their citizenship. But Egyptian-born Mr. and Mr.s Sakr say their son Mohamed never had anything other than a British passport, despite in principle having dual nationality.
In September 2010 the family received notification that the government intended to remove their son’s British citizenship, on the grounds that he was ‘involved in terrorism-related activity’.
It was the first known instance in modern times of a British-born person being stripped of his nationality. His family insist that the action meant Mohamed, who was in Somalia, was left effectively stateless and stranded.
His mother still can’t quite believe it happened. ‘I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that something here in Britain would happen like this, especially as Mohamed had no other passport, no other nationality. He was brought up here, all his life is here.’
Mohamed’s parents were so worried that their other sons might also lose their British citizenship that they renounced the entire family’s dual Egyptian nationalities, shortly after they were told that Mohamed had been deprived of his citizenship.
‘I did this for the protection of the family, because they grew up here, they were all born here. And I felt that for them it was my responsibility to protect them. It was the only way I could protect them against that stupid law,’ says Mr. Sakr.
‘No member of my family ever had an Egyptian passport,’ says Mr. Sakr. ‘For the kids it never crossed my mind that they would have anything other than their British passports. I know they are British, born British, they are British, and carried their British passports.’
Mr. and Mr.s Sakr have thrived in Britain, running a successful business. They moved here from Egypt 35 years ago thinking it was a good place to raise a family.
‘It was democratic, and compared to where I was before in Egypt that was a big gap,’ Mr. Sakr explains. ‘There was no dictator here, no bad laws like there were back home, so we decided to start a new life.’
Mohamed was born in London in 1985 and grew up as a normal, sporty child. ‘He was very popular amongst his friends, yet very quiet at the same time, very polite, he was just a normal child,’ recalls Eman.
As he got older his parents had worried about him getting into trouble. ‘He loved going out, he loved to dress up, to wear the best clothes, he liked everything to be top range,’ recalls Mr. Sakr.
‘I used to tell him, after midnight there’s no good news. So I’d say, “Make sure you are home before 12”. He said “OK, OK I’ll try, you know,”‘ said his mother.
In his early twenties he calmed down and in 2007 set up an executive car valeting business. His parents thought their son would follow in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps.
But in the summer of the same year Mohamed travelled to Saudi Arabia on what his parents say was a pilgrimage ‘with a couple of friends and their wives’, before heading to Egypt to join his family on holiday. From there, the Sakrs say, Mohamed and his younger brother also visited the family of a girlfriend in Dubai.
His actions were innocent, the family insists. But Mohamed was questioned for ‘at least three hours’ by immigration officials on his return to the UK. The questions focused on the countries he had visited and his reasons for going there.
‘He told them, “I didn’t plan to visit all these countries Â¬- it’s just how my summer has happened,”‘ his mother recalls.
It’s thought that UK counter-terrorism officials were becoming concerned that a group of radicalised young men was emerging in the capital, influenced by British Islamists who had returned home after fighting in Somalia.
The Sakrs both say that their eldest son became the subject of repeated police ‘harassment’ in which he was stopped on numerous occasions by plain-clothes officers.
After one incident Mohamed told his mother ‘They’re watching me momma, everywhere I go they watch me.’ The family became convinced that their phones were being tapped.
Mohamed was spending a lot of time with a friend he had met when he was 12 — Bilal alÂ¬-Berjawi. The two had lived in adjacent flats.
The childhood friends would both lose their British citizenship weeks apart in 2010 — and would die weeks apart too, in covert US airstrikes.
Berjawi’s Lebanese parents had brought him to London as a baby, and like Sakr, Berjawi had drawn the attention of Britain’s counter-terrorism agencies.
The Sakr family insists they were not aware of any wrongdoing on Mohamed’s part, despite frequent trouble with the police.
In February 2009 Berjawi and Sakr visited Kenya for what they told their families was a ‘safari’.
Both were detained in Nairobi, where they were said to have been interrogated by British intelligence officials. The authorities suspected them of terrorism-related activities.
They were released and only deported back to the UK because both, at that time, still had their British citizenship.
While the two were still being detained in Kenya, police arrived at the London family home with a search warrant.
Cards left behind by officers identify them as members of SO15,Â¬ the Met’s counter-terrorism squad. Mr. Sakr says he was shocked to be told that the family might have to vacate their home for up to two weeks while officers searched. The indignant family found themselves put up in the nearby Hilton hotel.
Two days later the family was allowed home. And shortly afterwards Mohamed and Bilal were deported back to Britain.
Mr. Sakr challenged his son: ‘I was asking questions, why has this happened and Mohamed said “Daddy, it’s finished, it will never happen again. It’s all done and dusted.” So I just put a cap on it and continued with a normal life.’
Mohamed’s mother insisted on accompanying him to a mosque so she could hear the sermons he was listening to.
‘I wanted to hear what they’re saying, I was always on top of this, always. I wanted to know why the police were after him, why?’ says Mr.s Sakr. ‘So he used to take me to different mosques, and the sermons were normal, nothing unusual.’
In October 2009, with ever-growing trouble with the British authorities, Mohamed and Berjawi decided to slip out of the country. Neither told their families that they were leaving, or where they were going.
‘The police came asking “Where is Mohamed?” And I said “I don’t know.” That was the honest answer, I didn’t know where my son was,’ says Mr. Sakr.
Months later Mohamed phoned his parents from Somalia. Both he and Berjawi were now living in a country gripped by civil war between radical Islamists and a rump UN-backed government.
While it’s been reported that both men were drawn to terrorist-linked groups, the Sakrs say the pair had innocent connections with the troubled east African nation. Berjawi had married a Somali woman in London, and Sakr at one time had also been engaged to marry a Somali girl.
Although both were killed by the US, most of the allegations against Sakr and Berjawi remain secret.
Some information has emerged, however. In November 2009, the pair were named along with a third British man in a Ugandan manhunt, accused of ‘sneaking into the country’ to plot terrorist activities. Later the men were linked to deadly bombings in that country’s capital.
The letter seen by the Bureau informing Mohamed’s family that he was losing his citizenship states he was ‘involved in terrorism-related activity’ and for having links with ‘Islamist extremists’, including his friend Bilal al-Berjawi.
The Sakrs remain defensive about these claims. ‘Have they done anything? Have they been caught in anything? Have they been caught in any action? Do they have any evidence against them that they have been involved in this or that? I haven’t seen. And they haven’t come up with it,’ says Mr. Sakr.
‘It says they took his freedom away because he knew Bilal! Does it mean that because I know a bad person it means I’m bad, or know good people that I’m good? He’d known Bilal since he was 12 years old!,’ says Mohamed’s mother.
At first Mohamed wanted to fight the deprivation order, and his family hired lawyers in the UK. But they were told that in order to mount an effective appeal Mohamed would need to return to Britain.
His parents say he was too scared to come back.
‘He said, “Daddy, it is impossible for me,”‘ says Mr. Sakr. “He said, “If I go from here, they’ve already taken my passport from me, maybe they will catch me somewhere, and you will never hear from me again.” He knew something could happen to him.’
In February 2012, news agencies reported that a high-ranking Egyptian al Qaeda official had been killed in a US drone strike in Somalia.
It would be days before the family realised those reports actually referred to their son.
Mr. Sakr says: ‘Their hands were washed. And that’s what they claimed when the news first came. They announced that Mohamed was Egyptian [cries]. That’s why they tried to show to the rest of the world, “He’s an Egyptian. He’s not British.”
‘Intelligence killed millions of Iraqis on the basis of wrong information. If we go and kill everyone based on intelligence information, then we are not living in the world of democracy and justice. We are living in the world of “Who has the power and who has the weapons to kill,”‘ Mr. Sakr rails.
‘If you’re not happy about a dictator or about rules or freedom of speech, and then you come to a country like Britain which we know for hundreds and hundreds of years has talked of democracy and freedom, and laws and justice. And suddenly you find there’s no justice, no freedom of speech, no democracy.’
In response to the Bureau’s original report, a Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘Citizenship is a privilege not a right. The Home Secretary has the power to remove citizenship from individuals where she considers it is conducive to the public good.’
Asked whether intelligence was provided to foreign governments, she said: ‘We don’t comment on intelligence issues. Drone strikes are a matter for the states concerned.’
A version of this piece was published in The Independent newspaper.
Former British Citizens Killed by
Drone Strikes after Passports Revoked
Chris Woods and Alice K Ross / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
It’s not open government, it’s closed, and it needs to be exposed because in my view it’s a real overriding of open government and the rule of law.
Ian Macdonald QC
The British government can completely wash their hands if the security services give information to the Americans who use their drones to track someone and kill them.
Ian Macdonald QC
(February 27, 2013) — The government has secretly ramped up a controversial programme that strips people of their British citizenship on national security grounds — two of whom have been subsequently killed by US drone attacks.
An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and published in the Independent has established that since 2010 the Home Secretary Theresa May has revoked the passports of 16 individuals many of whom are alleged to have had links to militant or terrorist groups.
Critics of the programme warn that it also allows ministers to ‘wash their hands’ of British nationals suspected of terrorism who could be subject to torture and illegal detention abroad.
They add that it also allows those stripped of their citizenship to be killed or ‘rendered’ without any onus on the British government to intervene.
At least five of those deprived of their UK nationality by the Coalition government were born in Britain, and one man had lived in the country for almost 50 years.
Those affected have their passports cancelled, and lose their right to enter the UK — making it very difficult to appeal the Home Secretary’s decision.
Last night the Liberal Democrat’s deputy leader Simon Hughes said he was writing to the Home Secretary to call for an urgent review into how the law was being implemented.
The leading human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce said the present situation ‘smacked of medieval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary’.
Ian Macdonald QC, president of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, described the citizenship orders as ‘sinister’.
‘They’re using executive powers and I think they’re using them quite wrongly,’ he said.
‘It’s not open government, it’s closed, and it needs to be exposed because in my view it’s a real overriding of open government and the rule of law.’
Laws were passed in 2002 enabling the Home Secretary to remove the citizenship of any dual nationals who had done something ‘seriously prejudicial’ to the UK, but the power had rarely been used before the current government.
The Bureau’s investigations have established the identities of all but four of the 21 British passport holders who have lost their citizenship, and their subsequent fates. Only two have successfully appealed — one of whom has since been extradited to the US.
In many cases those involved cannot be named because of ongoing legal action.
The Bureau has also found evidence that government officials act when people are out of the country — on two occasions while on holiday – cancelling passports and revoking citizenships.
Those targeted include Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen who came to the UK as a baby and grew up in London, but left for Somalia in 2009 with his close friend British-born Mohamed Sakr, who also held Egyptian nationality.
Both had been the subject of extensive surveillance by British intelligence, with the security services concerned they were involved in terrorist activities.
Once in Somalia, the two reportedly became involved with al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group with links to al Qaeda. Berjawi was said to have risen to a senior position in the organisation, with Sakr his ‘right hand man’.
In 2010, Theresa May stripped both men of their British nationalities and they soon became targets in an ultimately lethal US manhunt.
In June 2011 Berjawi was wounded in the first known US drone strike in Somalia and last year he was killed by a drone strike — within hours of calling his wife in London to congratulate her on the birth of their first son.
Sakr, too, was killed in a US airstrike in February 2012, although his British origins have not been revealed until now.
Sakr’s former UK solicitor said there appeared to be a link between the Home Secretary removing citizenships, and subsequent US actions.
‘It appears that the process of deprivation of citizenship made it easier for the US to then designate Sakr as an enemy combatant, to whom the UK owes no responsibility whatsoever,’ Saghir Hussain told the Bureau.
Macdonald added that depriving people of their citizenship ‘means that the British government can completely wash their hands if the security services give information to the Americans who use their drones to track someone and kill them.’
Campaign group CagePrisoners is in touch with many families of those affected. Executive director Asim Qureshi said the Bureau’s findings were deeply troubling for Britons from an ethnic minority background.
‘We all feel just as British as everybody else, and yet just because our parents came from another country, we can be subjected to an arbitrary process where we are no longer members of this country any more,’ he said.
‘I think that’s extremely dangerous because it will speak to people’s fears about how they’re viewed by their own government, especially when they come from certain areas of the world.’
Liberal Democrat Hughes said that while he accepted there were often real security concerns, he was worried that those who were innocent of Home Office charges against them and were trying to appeal risked finding themselves in a ‘political and constitutional limbo’.
‘There was clearly always a risk when the law was changed seven years ago that the executive could act to take a citizenship away in circumstances that were more frequent or more extensive than those envisaged by ministers at the time,’ he said.
‘I’m concerned at the growing number of people who appear to have lost their right to citizenship in recent years. I plan to write to the Home Secretary and the Home Affairs Select Committee to ask for their assessment of the situation, the policy both in general and in detail, and for a review of whether the act working as intended.’
Gareth Peirce said the present situation ‘smacked of medieval exile’.
‘British citizens are being banished from their own country, being stripped of a core part of their identity yet without a single word of explanation of why they have been singled out and dubbed a risk,’ she said.
Families are sometimes affected by the Home Secretary’s decisions. Parents may have to choose whether their British children remain in the UK, or join their father in exile abroad.
In a case known only as L1, a Sudanese-British man took his four British children on summer holiday to Sudan, along with his wife, who had limited leave to remain in the UK. Four days after his departure, Theresa May decided to strip him of his citizenship.
With their father excluded from the UK and their mother’s lack of permanent right to remain, the order effectively blocks the children from growing up in Britain.At the time of the order the children were aged eight to 13 months.The judge, despite recognising their right to be brought up in Britain, ruled that the grounds on which their father’s citizenship was revoked ‘outweighed’ the rights of the children.
Mr. Justice Mitting, sitting in the semi-secret Special Immigration Appeals Commission, said: ‘We accept that it is unlikely to be in the best interests of the Appellant’s children that he should be deprived of his British citizenshipâ€¦ They are British citizens, with a right of abode in the United Kingdom.
‘They are of an age when that right cannot, in practice, be enjoyed if both of their parents cannot return to the United Kingdom.’
Yet he added that Theresa May was ‘unlikely to have made that decision without substantial and plausible grounds’.
In another case, a man born in Newcastle in 1963 and three of his London-born sons all lost their citizenship two years ago while in Pakistan.
An expert witness told Siac, the semi-secretive court which hears deprivation appeals, that those in the family’s situation may be at risk from the country’s government agencies and militant groups. Yet Siac recently ruled that the UK ‘owed no obligation’ to those at risk of ‘any subsequent act of the Pakistani state or of non-state actors [militant groups] in Pakistan’.
The mother, herself a naturalised British citizen, now wants to return here in the interests of her youngest son, who has developmental needs. Although 15, he is said to be ‘dependent upon [his mother and father] for emotional and practical support’. His mother claimed he ‘has no hope of education in Pakistan’. But the mother has diabetes and mobility problems that mean she ‘does not feel able to return on her own, with or without [her son].’
Mr. Justice Mitting ruled that the deprivation of citizenship of the family’s father had ‘undoubtedly had an impact on the private and family life of his wife and youngest son, both of whom remain British citizens’.
But he added that the father posed such a threat to national security that the ‘unavoidable incidental impact’ on his wife and youngest son was ‘justifiable’, and dismissed the appeal.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘Citizenship is a privilege not a right. The Home Secretary has the power to remove citizenship from individuals where she considers it is conducive to the public good. An individual subject to deprivation can appeal to the courts.’
She added: ‘We don’t routinely comment on individual deprivation cases.’
Asked whether intelligence was provided to foreign governments, she said: ‘We don’t comment on intelligence issues. Drone strikes are a matter for the states concerned.’
A Law Unto Herself:
How the Home Secretary Has the Power to Strip British Citizenship
The Home Secretary has sole power to remove an individual’s British citizenship. The decision does not have to be referred through the courts.
From the moment the Home Secretary signs a deprivation of citizenship order, the individual ceases to be a British subject — their passport is cancelled, they lose the diplomatic protections Britain extends to its citizens, and they must apply for a visa to re-enter the country.
The Home Secretary can only deprive an individual of their citizenship if they are dual nationals. The power cannot be used if by removing British citizenship it renders an individual stateless.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May can use the power whenever she deems it ‘conducive to the public good’. She can act based on what she believes someone might do, rather than based on past acts.
The only way to challenge an order is through retrospective appeal. Where the deprivation is on national-security grounds, as in almost every known case, appeals go to the semi-secret Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac).
Siac hears sensitive, intelligence-based evidence in ‘closed’ proceedings — where an individual and their legal team cannot learn the detail of the evidence against them. Instead, a special advocate — a carefully vetted barrister — challenges the government’s account. But once they have seen the secret material they cannot speak with the defendant without the court’s permission, making cross-examination ‘pretty useless’, in the words of former special advocate Ian Macdonald.
The government has long been able to remove the citizenship of those who acquired it in cases such as treason, but the power to do so to British-born individuals was introduced after 9/11 in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. This allowed the Home Secretary to strip the nationality of those who had ‘done anything seriously prejudicial’ to the country. At that point, no deprivation order had been issued since 1973.
Following the July 7 bombings, the law changed again, so citizenship could be stripped if it is deemed ‘conducive to the public good’. Conservative MPs called this a ‘watered-down test’ — but the Conservative-led coalition government has embraced the power, issuing over three times as many orders as under Labour.
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