Afghan Asylum Claims May Drag On
By CAROLINE BYRNE
.c The Associated Press
LONDON (AP) - Britain has staked out a tough line against Afghans seeking asylum after a hijacking, but it could be months before a final decision. Afghanistan warned Friday that the hijackers could face death if they returned.
After a standoff ended early Thursday at London's Stansted airport, 74 of the freed hostages - almost half - requested asylum. Police have arrested 22 people who will likely face trial in Britain. The rest are still considering their options.
Some British tabloids on Friday were incensed over speculation that some of the Afghans might have used the hijacking to win asylum.
``No Entry'' proclaimed The Express of London, objecting to the prospective immigrants.
The Sun branded their temporary shelter near Stansted airport as ``the Kabul Hilton.'' The tabloid wrote: ``I watched in astonishment yesterday as a swish Hilton Hotel was turned into a four-star refugee camp for a bedraggled bunch of Afghan asylum seekers.''
``Welcome to your Home Cheat Home,'' said a Daily Star headline.
``Hi, Jack! Where's the four-star hotel?'' said The Mirror.
``Jack'' refers to Home Secretary Jack Straw, who promised to review personally every asylum application and send the hostages home or to another country as soon as possible.
Even if their applications were rejected, they would have 12 days to file an appeal and an indeterminate amount of time for a hearing, the Home Office confirmed.
Because of the complex nature of human rights claims and the large number of applicants, the process would likely continue for several months or even a year, said Amnesty International spokesman Neil Durkin.
``Although there's an understandable need to bring the hijackers to justice, the home secretary must not risk sending innocent men, women and children back to a terrible fate,'' said Durkin.
Meanwhile, Gen. Rahmatullah Safi, European representative for the Taliban, told BBC radio that in Afghanistan ``punishment will be according to the law of Shariah, which is death.''
But Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil later said the death penalty was not automatic for hijackers, and he encouraged the hostages to return home. He has asked British authorities to deal with the hijackers in ``accordance with British law and international norms.''
It was not known if any of the hijackers have requested asylum.
A plane chartered by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration arrived in England on Friday to ferry passengers back to Afghanistan, but the aircraft may not take off until next week.
``At the moment it looks like there are about 20 or so who have said they want to fly home,'' said Diane Grammer, spokeswoman for the organization.
Under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, Britain can refuse asylum to people who have committed grave crimes. But under the European Convention on Human rights, they may not be deported if there is a risk of them being tortured or ill-treated in their home state.
All of those on board - both hijackers and hostages - were at risk should they return to Afghanistan, said Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council.
``There is absolutely no doubt their lives would be in danger,'' said Hardwick. ``It is not just what the government would do but what the government would incite others to do to them. ... The women risk their lives. The children risk persecution and an unpleasant future.''
Britain has a sympathetic track record in dealing with Afghan claimants.
But Straw told the House of Commons that the fact that the passengers were on an internal flight made it difficult to believe they intended to claim asylum unless they were complicit in the hijacking.
The hijackers had taken over the Ariana Boeing 727 jet early Sunday during what should have been a short domestic flight from the Afghan capital of Kabul to the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif.
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