The business of the law can tend to harden the heart – but every now and then a case comes along that drives off the spectre of compassion fatigue. This was the effect of a recent libel claim in which I obtained substantial damages and published apologies for a 20-year-old Afghan refugee, Abdul Shizad, who – despite being entirely alone in the UK and having limited English – had the courage to sue the Daily Express, which had falsely accused him of being a “Taliban Suspect”.
The Express’s timing was particularly superlative, its 4 March 2013 article “Now Judges Let Taliban Suspect Stay” coming just a month after Abdul had succeeded in a stressful and exhausting 4 year quest for asylum in the UK.
Accompanied by a most unflattering photograph of two unsuspecting “Judges” (see above), the article lambasted “a new human rights scandal” in which “judges have said a suspected Taliban member can stay in Britain”.
The Express also published “Comments” by its more moderate readers offering suggestions such as “stick him on a transport plane and drop him off at 20,000 feet”, “deploy the explosives and let the pigs clean up what’s left” and “the death penalty should be reinstated.”
But – unfortunately for them – ‘The World’s Greatest Newspaper’ had got it expensively wrong.
Among the primary findings of the First-tier tribunal of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber in Abdul’s asylum claim, were that he had himself suffered ill-treatment at the hands of the Taliban and had given credible evidence that the Taliban had tried to recruit him six times and beaten him when he refused.
Importantly, in opposing his asylum claim, at no point had the Home Office ever alleged that he was suspected of being a Taliban member – had it considered this even a remote possibility, it would have had to consider excluding him from asylum protection altogether, which it did not do.
Unsurprisingly, Abdul, who was 15 when he fled his native country and has no idea where his surviving relatives are, was devastated by the article.
As he told me: “I came to this country to escape and for a better life, to work and pay taxes. Now what will people think? Maybe people kill me because of this.”
When pre-action correspondence drew a blank, he began to feel suicidal. But refusing to give up, he ploughed on, instructing service of court proceedings to protect his family name.
It is hard for any of us paper-pushers to imagine what it feels like to effectively receive death threats through the press after travelling across Europe for a year, persuading the Home Office not to relocate you back to a different part of Afghanistan and are 3,500 miles from home working in a pizza restaurant.
But we can try. And so could the press.
This is the Statement in Open Court [pdf].
Athalie Matthews is an Associate at Bindmans LLP, specialising in defamation and privacy law.