Analysis: Deaths during forced deportation

January 3, 2003 — Comment

Written by Liz Fekete

Case details of nine deaths during forced deportations in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, France, Austria and the United Kingdom.

The right to life, and the right to dignity – not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, are recognised as the most fundamental of all human rights. As such, they are at the heart of international human rights conventions such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. But immigrants and asylum seekers subjected to arrest, detention and forced expulsion or deportation are frequently denied basic dignity – they are often removed without time to put their affairs in order or say goodbye to friends or sometimes family; they are sometimes physically manhandled, sometimes shackled, sometimes illegally sedated – and occasionally, their right to life is forfeit.

Samson Chukwu
  • Nigerian asylum seeker
  • Aged 27
  • Died May 2001, Switzerland
  • Official cause of death: positional asphyxia

Case details: This was the second attempt to deport Samson Chukwu as a previous attempt, several weeks earlier, failed when the aeroplane pilot refused to take him on board. In this, the second deportation attempt, anti-terror unit officers from the canton of Valais arrived in the early hours of the morning at the detention centre in Valais to escort Chukwu onto a specially chartered flight. He died in the detention centre at the start of this forced deportation operation.

The police version of events was that, as Chukwu resisted deportation, it was necessary to hold him face down on the ground and handcuff him, with his hands placed behind his back. A final autopsy report states that Chukwu’s death by suffocation was provoked by the position in which he was placed. It points out that Chukwu was highly agitated and that, in a struggle that lasted for several minutes, Chukwu’s physical exertion may have completely drained his oxygen supply. The fact that his hands were then cuffed behind his back, placed him in a position in which it was hard to breathe. And the partial weight of one of the officers on his thorax was a further hindrance to his respiratory system.

Action taken: Police launched an inquiry but its impartiality was immediately undermined by persistent police reports that that Chukwu was a convicted drugs dealer.

Prosecutions: Authorities ordered that no police officer should be prosecuted for Chukwu’s death. In September 2001, the Valais investigating magistrate ruled that no criminal investigation should be opened against the officers. This was based on police statements indicating that the officers had not violated standard procedures and had not been trained in, and were unaware of, the dangers of the restraint methods they had used. An appeal lodged on behalf of Samson Chukwu’s family was dismissed.

Further action: Further appeals on behalf of Chukwu’s family have been lodged in the Federal Court. These are ongoing.

Christian Ecole Ebune
  • Cameroonian asylum seeker
  • Aged 31
  • Died 18 December 2000, Hungary
  • Official cause of death: natural causes as a consequence of chronic cardiac hypertrophy. (An alternative report commissioned by the Hungarian Helsinki Commission suggests that death was most probably due to a combination of heart failure, panic and stress.)

Case details: When deportation police arrived at the community shelter of the Nyirbátor border guard directorate to carry out the deportation, Ebune started to shout and cry. At this point, according to other detainees, two police officers and six border guards handcuffed him and ‘dragged him on the floor like a dead goat’ into the police van. At the Budapest Ferihegy International Airport, two officers from the National Police Alert Squad Anti-Terrorist Service arrived to escort Ebune to his flight. When these officers tried to replace Ebune’s metal handcuffs with plastic ones, Ebune attempted to escape. At this point, seven police officers forced him on to a table, closed the handcuffs, cuffed his feet and put him on a luggage trolley before pushing him into the transit zone. At first, the Sabena airline pilot agreed to take him on board but, when he continued to shout and protest, the pilot refused to go through with the deportation. Ebune was then taken into a service corridor away from passengers where, it appears, he was beaten and his feet wrapped with tape. When one of the officers noticed that he was unconscious, the airport emergency physician was called. Ebune could not be revived. (As compiled by Hungarian Helsinki Committee in its report ‘Death at the airport: the case of Christian Ecole Ebune’.)

Aamir Mohamed Ageeb
  • Sudanese asylum seeker
  • Died 30 May 1999, Germany
  • Official cause of death: asphyxiation

Case details: Aamir Mohamed Ageeb was taken on board a flight to Cairo, bound hand and foot and wearing a motorbike helmet tightly strapped onto his head. He died shortly after boarding the flight. After physicians on board made an unsuccessful attempt to revive him, the plane made an emergency landing in Munich where Ageeb was pronounced dead. There are indications that Ageeb died of suffocation as a result of his upper body being violently pushed downwards. There are allegations, based on witness reports, that the three BGS officers who carried out the deportation had refused to untie the lifeless Ageeb so as to enable effective attempts at resuscitation to be made by doctors on board. It has also been claimed that Ageeb’s appeals that he could not breathe did not lead to any cessation in the police officers’ violence and that the Lufthansa crew made no efforts to intervene to stop the violence.

Action taken: The three federal border guards involved were removed from deportation duties, but not suspended from police duties. An investigation by the federal ministry of the interior cleared them of any fault.

A temporary embargo on forced deportations was lifted after one month.

Immediately after Ageeb’s death, police claimed that he had been so violent as to bring about his own death. None of the police allegations about Ageeb’s violent criminal record were ever substantiated.

Prosecutions: The trial of three federal border guards charged with ‘manslaughter through culpable negligence’ is ongoing amid accusations that the authorities have indulged in ‘unseemly delay’ in bringing the case to court.

Marcus Omofuma
  • Nigerian asylum seeker
  • Aged 25
  • Died 1 May 1999, Austria
  • Official cause of death: suffocation

Case details: Marcus Omofuma, an Ogoni asylum seeker from Nigeria, was taken for deportation on board a Balkan-Air flight at Vienna. He was due to be deported to Nigeria, via Sofia, Bulgaria. Due to resistance Omofuma put up in the car on the way to the runway, a decision was taken to tape his mouth and bind his feet. He was carried to the plane ‘taped up like a parcel’ and the binding process continued inside the aircraft. His upper body as well as his head were bound to the seat with tape so that his head was almost immobile. His mouth was taped, and his nostrils were also partially sealed. An eye witness at the trial of the three police officers involved testified that at one point an officer sitting in the seat behind Omofuma pressed his foot on the back of Omofuma’s seat in order that he could pull the tape as tightly as possible around his chest. Probably out of panic, Omofuma banged the seat in front of him, in which an employee of Balkan Air was seated. The employee then landed Omofuma a blow to the head, whereupon the police officers bound Omofuma’s head yet again ten or perhaps twenty times – adding a further ten metres of tape around his body. Passengers objected when the officers hit Omofuma as he attempted with extreme strength, to exhale through his nose. After about half an hour of flight time, Omofuma became strangely still. Concerned passengers repeatedly asked the officers to check Omofuma’s state of health. They took his pulse and said he was still alive. On arrival in Sofia, an emergency doctor was summoned and Omofuma pronounced dead. The lawyer for Omofuma’s family said at the trial of the three police officers involved, ‘Omofuma’s supposed resistance was, in reality, his death struggle’. (These are the details as they emerged at the trial of three police officers in April 2002. Two women passengers on board the deportation flight agreed to give evidence on condition of anonymity)

Immediate action taken: Forced deportations were temporarily suspended. The interior minister refused to resign but announced an investigation. At first, the three police officers involved in the deportation were not suspended. The interior ministry were also perceived to have undermined the independence of the investigation by claiming that Omofuma died because he put up ‘heavy resistance’.

Prosecutions: It took three years to bring three police officers from the Viennese unit of the foreigners’ police to court, charged with ‘torture of a prisoner resulting in death’. On 15 April 2002, they were found not guilty on this charge, but guilty of the lesser charge of ‘negligent manslaughter in particularly dangerous conditions’. The three police officers were given eight months suspended prison terms – a sentence which they are set to appeal. The police officers continue to serve in the police force.

Further action: Lawyers are pursuing a compensation claim on behalf of Omofuma’s 3-year-old daughter.

Khaled Abuzarifeh
  • Palestinian asylum seeker
  • Aged 27
  • Died 3 March 1999, Switzerland
  • Official cause of death: positional asphyxia

Case details: On a previous attempt to deport Khaled Abuzarifeh, he had protested so vociferously that the airline pilot refused to take him on board and the deportation failed. On the second attempt, he was to be deported from the detention centre at Zurich Kloten airport to Egypt. Abuzarifeh, who was accompanied by three police officers, was given a sedative had his mouth sealed with adhesive tape, was bound hand and foot and strapped into a wheelchair in preparation for deportation. He was accompanied by three deportation officers. He died in a lift at Switzerland’s Bern airport after suffering a panic attack, causing him to choke on his own vomit and suffocate. By this stage he was being taken for deportation restrained in a wheelchair and with his mouth sealed with adhesive tape.

Action taken: No halt on deportations, but the Swiss police announced that in future adhesive tape would not be used; instead deportees would have to wear a specially-designed deportation helmet (the type already banned in Germany). Immediately after Abuzarifeh’s death, police issued a press statement describing him as a ‘convicted drugs dealer’ and implying that he could have taken drugs prior to deportation.

Prosecutions: In June 2001, two police officers were acquitted of manslaughter and the case against the third, in charge of the deportation, was sent back to the prosecutor’s office for re-examination and possible additional charges. The case is apparently still awaiting the authorities decision as to whether a prosecution will go ahead.

However, in June 2001 a doctor employed by the canton of Bern was found guilty of manslaughter and given a five-months suspended prison sentence (the sentence was later reduced to a three months suspended sentence on appeal) and ordered to pay compensation to the Palestinian’s family. During the court case, it was revealed that the doctor had ignored complaints from Abuzarifeh that he could not breathe properly when the adhesive tape was used to seal his mouth. The court ruled that the doctor had failed to observe a nasal deformation that reduced Abuzarifeh’s breathing capacity and that this should have been observed during a thorough medical examination prior to deportation.

Further action: The civil rights group Augenauf immediately initiated legal proceedings for manslaughter against the Zurich cantonal minister for police as well as against the unnamed police officers involved in the deportation.

Semira Adamu
  • Nigerian asylum seeker
  • Aged 20
  • Died September 1998, Belgium
  • Official cause of death: asphyxiation

Case details: This was the sixth attempt to deport Semira Adamu from Belgium. In the early hours of the morning, eleven members of the gendarmerie’s National Airport Unit had taken her to Zaventem airport in an armoured unit. On board, as Adamu attempted to draw attention to herself by singing, officers used the so-called ‘cushion technique’ to restrain her. One gendarme gripped her hands while the other one held her head down on the cushion, covering her nose and mouth for several minutes.

As it is normal practice to film ‘difficult deportations’, the deportation was recorded on video. (There are claims that some parts of the video have since been doctored.) The video records the gendarmes cracking jokes while holding a cushion over Adamu’s face.

She fell into a coma, emergency services were called and she was transferred to hospital where she died of a brain haemorrhage.

Action taken: Interior minister Louis Tobback resigned after Semira Adamu’s death – in recognition of the fact that he was politically accountable for the misdeeds of the judiciary. A judicial inquiry, which was completed in February 2000, was launched and the Vermeersch Commission set up to evaluate instructions and techniques relating to forced deportations. In 2000, new guidelines were laid down, banning control and restraint methods that block breathing and the use of sedatives. But other methods of forced deportation that are equally dangerous are being put in place.

In 2000, Amnesty International criticised the Belgian authorities for failing to publish the results of its investigation into the death of Semira Adamu. The judicial investigation was closed by the investigating magistrate and a dossier sent to the Public Prosecutions office.

Prosecutions: In March 2002, a court ordered that the three escorting officers should stand trial for deliberately causing grievous bodily harm resulting, unintentionally, in death. Another two officers who had supervised the operation on board the plane were charged with committing the same offence through failure to take precautionary measures. Thus, three years after Adamu’s death, the case against the police officers has still not been heard.

Kola Bankole
  • Nigerian asylum seeker
  • Died 31 August, Germany

Case details: Kola Bankole was due to be deported from Frankfurt to Nigeria. In order to deport him, police officers at Frankfurt airport bound, gagged and injected him with a large dose of sedatives.

Action taken: An investigation was launched into Bankole’s death but the prosecuting authorities concluded that charges of manslaughter through negligence could not be brought against any of the officers concerned and that the use of physical force and restraints were sanctioned by law.

The death led to angry representations from the Nigerian Embassy which claimed that 25 Nigerians had died in police custody in Germany over the past three years.

Prosecutions: No police officer was ever charged in connection with Bankole’s death. However, a doctor involved in the attempted deportation was ordered to pay DM5000 to a charitable organisation after being charged with ‘failing to render assistance’.

Joy Gardner
  • Jamaican immigration overstayer
  • Aged 40
  • Died August 1993, United Kingdom
  • Official cause of death: brain damage caused by lack of oxygen

Case details: Deportation police from the SO1(3) squad arrived at the north London home of Joy Gardner in the early hours of the morning of 8 July 1993. In front of her 5-year-old son, they held her down to stop her struggling and placed a body belt around her waist, bound her wrists to handcuffs attached to a belt and tied her thighs and ankles with leather belts. They then wrapped 13 feet of tape around her mouth to stop her screaming. She was taken to hospital in a coma from which she never recovered.

Action taken: Home Office and Metropolitan police launched a joint review of procedures for deportation and, shortly afterwards, the home secretary banned the use of gags and adhesive tape to restrain deportees. Many newspapers depicted Joy Gardner as a dangerous and violent criminal.

Prosecutions: In 1995, three police officers stood trial, charged with the manslaughter of Joy Gardner, but were acquitted. No disciplinary action was taken against any of the officers involved in the actual deportation and a supervisory officer who faced a disciplinary charge was cleared of any wrong-doing.

Further action: In 1999, the family of Joy Gardner issued a writ against the home secretary and the Metropolitan police commissioner for ‘unlawful killing’. The family are seeking compensation for the psychological suffering caused to Joy Gardner’s son by witnessing the deportation attempt.

Arumugam Kanapathipillai
  • Tamil asylum seeker
  • Aged 33
  • Died 1991, France
  • Official cause of death: asphyxiation

Case details: Arumugam Kanapathipillai was taken for deportation, gagged and wrapped up in a blanket, on a Paris to Colombo flight. He died later in the hospital at Aulnay-sous-Bois.

Any action: There was no publicity about this death at the time and there are allegations that the authorities deliberately tried to cover the death up. Seven years later, after the ministry of interior launched an inquiry into the use of gags and tranquillisers by Diccilec, the immigration police, it emerged that no police officer had ever been charged following the death of Arumugam Kanapathipillai.

Related links

Amnesty International

National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

Schools against deportations

Sources: IRR European Race Bulletin, Amnesty International and Hungarian Helsinki Commission

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.


January 11, 2013
stewart hugo:

Had they not been illegal immigrants they would not have been arrested and deported.

Had they not been struggling and fighting they would not have been restrained.

While every death is a tragedy, one can not waste too much time worrying about people who are the main contributors to their own demise.

June 10, 2015
Bill R.:

Thank for this informative analysis. The fact that these cases happened at the turn of the 21st century, in addition to the lack of accountability, makes it even more disgraceful.

Stewart Hugo : you should be ashamed of yourself for writing that comment. Had the police officers done their job properly those illegal immigrants wouldn’t have died, you can restrain someone without killing them. The police was the main contributor to the demise of these people, and the judiciary is also culpable.

Write a comment