Three Afghan interpreters who worked with British troops launched a legal bid on Friday challenging the U.K. government's decision not to give them the same assistance awarded to Iraqi interpreters, which their lawyers said is dangerous and discriminatory.
Law firm Leigh Day said Afghan interpreters and their families are under threat from the Taliban and the British government has a duty to ensure they're not left exposed. The firm said it filed for judicial review at Britain's High Court on behalf of the three Afghans, who were left unidentified for security reasons.
Leigh Day said the father of one of the interpreters has received phone threats calling him an "infidel's spy" and saying "we have found your place" and "very soon you will see your punishment."
"The failure by the U.K. government to extend to the Afghan interpreters the resettlement package offered to Iraqi interpreters is unlawful and discriminatory," Rosa Curling from Leigh Day said in a statement.
Government officials stressed that Britain — like several other countries involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan — is still considering what new options to make available to locally employed Afghans who have helped its troops.
British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week said the issue is being discussed by his National Security Council and that Britain should make sure those under direct threat can apply to come to live in the U.K. But he also suggested many of the hundreds of interpreters employed by the U.K. should stay in Afghanistan.
"We should not turn our backs," Cameron said. "But I do think that....we should do everything we can to encourage talented Afghans to stay in their country and to contribute to it."
The British government acknowledged the lawsuit Friday but said it would be inappropriate to comment further on the case.
"We are committed to making the appropriate provision to support our locally employed staff as we draw down and eventually end our combat mission, and we are currently looking very carefully at how we do this," the Foreign Office said in a statement.
The firm's challenge came as activists delivered a petition signed by 78,000 people to the Foreign Office urging the government to immediately grant asylum to the estimated 500 interpreters employed by Britain's Ministry of Defense.
"Risks to their lives are growing daily as the U.K. starts to withdraw; we cannot abandon them and we must act now. Their fate is in your hands," the petition stated.
Threats or cases of intimidation against Afghans working for U.K. forces in Afghanistan are already considered on a case-by-case basis, and a British government spokeswoman reiterated that interpreters can be considered for relocation through the U.K.'s asylum process. She spoke on condition of anonymity because departmental policy prevents her from speaking on the record.
Cameron's government is now looking at what new or blanket options — either financial compensation or in extreme cases relocation to the U.K. — could be offered to Afghan interpreters and locally employed staff so proper provisions are made when combat operations end in 2014.
An announcement will follow "in due course," the government spokesperson added.
The resettlement programs for Iraqis offered by the U.K., U.S. and other countries could be looked to for guidance, though those were not without flaws.
Iraqis interpreters who qualified were eligible for a one-time package of financial aid or exceptional indefinite leave to enter the U.K., outside normal immigration rules.
A similar program in the U.S. created a special visa for Iraqis who aided American efforts. The State Department says that program is set to end this year — 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion — despite the federal government issuing less than a quarter of the special visas allocated.
The British government spokeswoman acknowledged that options being considered "will incorporate lessons learned" from Iraq, but stressed that circumstances in the two countries are different.
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd