Nine men who hijacked an airplane to Britain to flee Afghanistan's former Taliban regime should be granted refugee status, a British judge ruled Wednesday.

The government, arguing that hijackers should never be rewarded, said it might appeal the decision.

The men were jailed in Britain for the bloodless hijacking of an Afghan Boeing 727 in February 2000, nearly two years before the repressive Taliban government was ousted in a U.S.-led invasion. They were released after their convictions were overturned on appeal but not given the refugee status they requested.

The men claimed they were members of an anti-Taliban group called the Young Intellectuals of Afghanistan and feared for their lives inside the country. The group's leader, a former university lecturer called Ali Safi, claimed at trial that he once had been jailed by the hard-line Islamic regime for playing chess.

After the men's convictions were overturned on appeal, immigration authorities ruled in 2004 that they should be allowed to stay in Britain as refugees, saying that sending them back to Afghanistan would violate their human rights by exposing them to possible attack by Taliban members.

The government deliberately failed to implement that decision by only granting a series of temporary permits to stay, a High Court judge found Wednesday.

The men have not been allowed to work and could have been deported at short notice.

"It is difficult to conceive of a clearer case of conspicuous unfairness amounting to an abuse of power," Justice Jeremy Sullivan said, ordering the government to grant the men and their families leave to stay in the country.

The lets the men and their families, whose applications for asylum have been rejected, work and apply for benefits in Britain. The Home Office can review that status every six months and potentially revoke it. The leave becomes indefinite after five years.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said the government was "disappointed" with the ruling and was considering an appeal.

"It is commonsense that to deter hijacking and international terrorism, individuals should not be rewarded with leave to remain," McNulty said in a statement. "It remains our intention to remove them as soon as it is possible to ensure that they can be returned in safety to Afghanistan."

The men hijacked an Ariana Airlines jetliner with 188 people aboard during a flight from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. They forced the crew to fly to Britain and surrendered after a four-day standoff with police at Stansted Airport, northeast of London.

Witnesses at the criminal trial said the men carried guns and grenades and threatened to kill passengers and crew members.

Sullivan also ordered the British Home Office to pay legal costs to show his "disquiet and concern" at their handling of the case.