Under ancient Roman law, those who were accused of the most heinous crimes were stripped of their status as citizens. They became known as “homo sacer”, or “sacred man” – sacred in its original sense, of being set apart. Anyone who encountered the sacred man was entitled to kill him with impunity. The distinction depended on the privileged political and legal status afforded to Roman citizens.
With the fall of the Roman empire, the rigorous divisions it upheld – between those deserving protection and those no better than beasts – fell into abeyance. It has taken a long time for the concept of “citizen” to be reconstituted to the point where its withdrawal can once again be considered akin to a death sentence.
English law has since at least the 12th century held that all people, regardless of class or origin, have the right to representation and a fair trial – not based on their citizenship but on the principles of human liberty. For centuries this was equally applied to foreigners, sometimes with radical outcomes. The grounds for the abolition of slavery were laid by a 1772 case in which James Somerset, an African slave brought to England from America by his owner, was freed by the court rather than being forcibly deported to the plantations of Jamaica.