Yarl’s Wood trial – a miscarriage of justice?
September 3, 2003 — Comment
Written by Harmit Athwal
The restraint of a woman, who asked to attend church, sparked the disturbance that led to Yarl’s Wood detention centre being burnt to the ground. Of the eleven men charged in connection with the fire, only four were convicted, after a trial that may have been flawed. And yet, next month, Yarl’s Wood will be re-opened for women asylum seekers and families seeking asylum.
On 15 August 2003, after a four-month trial, only two men were convicted of violent disorder during the fire on Valentine’s Day 2002. Four men had the charges against them dismissed, three men were found not guilty by the jury and two men pleaded guilty to affray and violent disorder charges. Those who were acquitted were all immediately rearrested and detained under immigration powers.
The defendants, all asylum seekers, had been detained at Yarl’s Wood pending decisions on their asylum claims. The fire at Yarl’s Wood started after detention custody officers (DCOs) from Group 4 (a private company contracted by the government for six years to run Yarl’s Wood) restrained a Nigerian woman, which led to male detainees trying to intervene. Group 4, who were branded a ‘national laughing stock ever since they first blundered into the field of private custodial services’ by counsel for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), quickly lost control of the situation and fires were started which led to half of the centre burning down.
Yarl’s Wood which opened in November 2001, cost approximately £100 million to build and could hold 900 asylum seekers. At the time of the fire, the centre housed 384 detainees. The damage caused by the disturbance was estimated at £40 million. The trial revealed that on the night, the main priority of Group 4 staff was to secure the perimeter of Yarl’s Wood. The CPS disclosed that on the evening of 14 February 2002, the police received a call at around 8pm from the duty manager, Jackie Savage. She requested immediate assistance to deal with a serious disorder. Police arrived within ten minutes – but were, according to evidence given at the trial, not allowed to take overall control until around one in the morning. Events during the intervening five hours were controlled by Derek Milliken, Group 4 Head of Security and Operations, and Mel Kirtly, a Prison Service riot squad officer. A question raised by the trial was whether Group 4’s decision to prevent police and fire-fighters access to the centre put the lives of detainees and staff at risk.
After the fire, the Fire Brigades’ Union criticised the decision to keep the remaining 250 asylum seekers at the centre in ‘unsafe’ conditions and it also criticised the Home Office’s original decision not to fit sprinklers at the centre.
Maintaining the ‘security’ of the site was, apparently, more important than the lives of asylum seekers detained at the centre. Evidence presented at the end of the trial by former Group 4 officer, Darren Attwood, was that he was ordered to ‘lock the detainees in the burning building’. He said that he knew who gave the order and if bodies were found he would tell the authorities.
Group 4 were initially investigated for corporate manslaughter, as it was thought that people had died in the fire. Specialist investigators spent months sifting through the ashes before they were satisfied that there was no evidence of anyone having died.
To general amazement, Group 4 has taken the unprecedented step of initiating a civil action against Bedfordshire police, claiming £97 million under the obscure Riot Damages Act of 1886, which allows companies and individuals to sue police over riot damage.
What sparked the disturbance at Yarl’s Wood?
Yarl’s Wood was a place of detention for families and individuals seeking asylum in the UK. Many of the detainees, people, who had in many cases suffered detention and torture in their countries of origin, could not comprehend why they were locked up like criminals when all they wanted was sanctuary.
Prior to the fire, conditions at Yarl’s Wood had already been the subject of complaints and hunger strikes. Detainees were unhappy about the food and its quality; they complained that they were not allowed to associate freely and had problems with phone calls. Detainees were also unhappy that the regime at Yarl’s Wood had been reported as ‘luxurious’ by the tabloids. The attitude of some Group 4 staff to detainees in their care was shown by their language – Gloria Bates, a Group 4 supervisor, revealed that staff called the main corridor in Yarl’s Wood the ‘Green Mile’ after the US film, which dramatised the lives of death row prisoners. And on the day of the fire, detainee George Tuka complained to Gloria Bates that he had been summoned to the staff office for no reason and then when he arrived was told to ‘piss off’.
However, on that night, it was the treatment by Group 4 officers of Eunice Edozieh, a 52-year-old Nigerian detainee called ‘Mama’ by other detainees, that sparked the disturbance. Eunice had been asking that day to see a doctor as she was suffering from haemorrhoids (and has now been diagnosed with an uterine prolapse). She became agitated and this was ‘dealt with’ by a supervisor distracting her by sending her a bogus message implying she had an outside phonecall. DCO Suzanne Roadnight hearing one of Eunice ‘s requests to see a doctor told her to ‘Shut up and get out of my office’.
Later, Group 4 supervisor Gloria Bates and shift manager Alan Hughes decided that Eunice would not be allowed to attend church because of the ‘scene’ she had caused earlier. A notice was put up banning Eunice from church that night. Officers failed to tell Eunice of their decision, but when Eunice tried to attend church, she was refused access. Eunice became angry and upset and at least four Group 4 officers restrained her. Christopher Collins, a Group 4 officer, testified, ‘I took hold of her left arm and moved her away and DCO Bassett had hold of her right arm. Someone shouted “down” so we took her to the floor. I don’t know how – she was just heading down so I went with her. I didn’t use any particular technique to push her to the floor… she was shouting “they’re going to kill me”‘. A former prison officer, Carol Brown, commented in her statement that Group 4 training for such incidents was not adequate.
When other detainees caught sight of what was happening, they attempted to stop it and disorder broke out. In the ensuing mêlée, Group 4 staff lost control and fires broke out. Eunice and the female asylum seekers with her were then locked into the stairwell of the burning building, according to testimony at the trial.
Detainees offer help
Despite the earlier dispute, detainees tried to help others escape from the fire. Evidence from DCO Ricardo Rocchi, revealed that he was helped by detainees Lucky Jacobs and George Tuka. George also spoke to him in Italian to reassure him in his own language. He was helped out of a window and outside he recognised another detainee Agron Kastrioti and hugged him. He described Agron as a ‘good man’. All three detainees went on to face charges of violent disorder.
Joanne Alex Clarke, a mental health nurse who locked herself in a room with another nurse, said that they decided to come out not knowing what was on the other side. They hid their keys in their bags and were confronted by two male detainees who reassured them and offered them coffee. Group 4 officer Mark Curtis gave evidence that he was escorted from the burning building by Fitz (a Jamaican detainee who was deported soon after the fire) and that Lucky Jacobs and another detainee, Thomas Kalu, had both put an arm around him. He said of Thomas Kalu, ‘it was quite a relief to hear a friendly voice’.
Behar Limani, another detainee who would later be convicted of violent disorder, helped families escape from the burning building. Sylvia Burns, of Group 4, testified that Behar had said ‘get out save yourself, I’ll get them out’. He had then organised the evacuation with other Albanians and checked that each room in the corridor was empty.
After the fire, detainees spent many hours in the freezing cold in the grounds of the centre and were taken back into the sports hall and photographed and searched. It was at this point that detainees who had been identified as ‘troublemakers’ were segregated by Group 4.
Miscarriage of justice?
The trial revealed blunders and incompetence on all sides – the Home Office, the police and Group 4 – the ‘national laughing stock’. But was justice done? The possibility of a fair trial was severely limited when the Home Office deported many of the witnesses to the events who might have exonerated the accused. Key prosecution witnesses were trained in the ‘art’ of giving evidence in a courtroom. And, towards the end of the trial, a juror alleged that two other members of the jury had made prejudiced comments against asylum seekers.
- Deported witnesses: Bedfordshire police interviewed a huge number of people in connection with the fire, including the Chairman of the Fire Sprinklers’ Association, firemen and police officers who did not even attend the scene of the fire. However, they failed to interview many former detainees, who had been named as witnesses by the defendants. Even when witnesses were interviewed, in many cases relevant questions were not put to them. Sometimes, witnesses were deported before police officers even managed to take a statement. Eight of Nassem Mostaffa’s 18 defence witnesses were deported before giving statements, and four of Agron Kastrioti’s 12 defence witnesses. Abdul Kayode’s key defence witness was deported without the police taking a statement from him.
- Disclosure: Two weeks after the incident, police had compiled lever arch files containing information on all the detainees at Yarl’s Wood, including photos, personal details and addresses. But there were long delays in making this information available to defence solicitors. On 20 September 2002, in pre-trial hearings, Judge Saunders ruled that defence solicitors had to be given the means to trace possible witnesses. But Thomas Kalu’s solicitor was not given this information until February 2003 – by which time a huge number of potential witnesses had been deported. In April, the judge was shown a letter from Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes, stating that ‘no-one has been removed without the police being given opportunity to interview them’. But the CPS counsel was reportedly overheard by someone in the public gallery saying, ‘we deliberately didn’t give full documents because we didn’t want to tip off the defence as to who’d been deported’.
- Witness training: Group 4 hired Bond Solon, a company that specialises in training witnesses in what it calls ‘courtroom skills’, to train those staff members who were key prosecution witnesses. The Bond Solon training was based on a hypothetical case study of ‘Butlins Detention Centre’ for asylum seekers. No records were kept of what was discussed. Bond Solon was described by the CPS counsel as a ‘thoroughly disreputable organisation’ and the training as ‘wholly inappropriate and improper in the context of a criminal trial’. One of the witnesses, who received at least six hours’ training from the company, was described in court by the CPS barrister as the ‘worst witness ever seen’.
- Counselling: The CPS also told the court that counselling sessions were held for Group 4 staff despite their advice that they should not take place. In court, too, it was revealed that the police’s instruction that people should not talk about the fire, was disregarded. Heidi Rippingale, who at the time of the incident was working as a trainee psychologist, was a key prosecution witness who also received counselling. She was told in one counselling session to cut out newspaper cuttings on the fire. Rippingale made an identification of Agron Kastrioti after seeing a picture of him in handcuffs in the Bedford Times and Citizen, having not mentioned Agron’s name before in statements to police. The judge excluded her evidence, ruling it ‘tainted and totally inadmissible’.
- Identification by witnesses: During the trial, Detective Superintendent Richter of Bedfordshire police told the court about ‘policy decision 21’ which prioritised the statements of Group 4 staff as more reliable than those of detainees. CCTV evidence, which was regarded as the most reliable source of evidence, was not available – it was all burnt. The next most reliable source of evidence was regarded as eye-witness evidence from the police, fire, ambulance, Prison Service riot squad and Group 4 staff. After the fire, Group 4 put up pictures of 50 detainees, a ‘rogues gallery’, in their office. The police advised Group 4 to stop showing photos of detainees to potential witnesses. In the trial, it emerged that Group 4 held debriefings after the fire and staff talked about the night. There had also been some ‘name swapping’.
- ID parade: The police video of Lucky Jacobs, used for an ID parade, showed Lucky wearing standard issue clothing from Yarl’s Wood, which would have been immediately recognisable to the main witnesses – Yarl’s Wood staff.
- The jury: The jury had only just begun deliberating on its verdicts when a juror sent the judge a note alleging that two members of the jury had made prejudiced comments about asylum seekers. The judge did not discharge the jury because the other jury members denied the allegations. A few days later the juror who made the allegations pleaded illness and was excused from the deliberations, leaving the rest of the jury to reach verdicts.
Despite the millions spent on the investigation and four-month trial, only two men were convicted on the evidence provided by the CPS and police. Behar Limani, a 26-year-old Albanian, and Henry Momodu, a 39-year-old Nigerian, were both convicted of violent disorder and sentenced to four years. Henry was found not guilty of arson.
But the dismissal of charges against four of those charged (for lack of evidence) did not bring them freedom. On 6 June, a reporter for IRR News witnessed Klodgan Gaba’s happiness at his acquittal. But this happiness was short lived. As Klodgan came to sit in the public area of the court room, a policeman asked him to go outside. There, he was arrested under immigration powers, taken to South Harrow Police Station, on to Harmondsworth Detention Centre and, before friends could arrange visits, to Dungavel Detention Centre in Scotland, from where he was deported soon after to Albania. Klodgan lost both of his parents when he was just 17-years-old. They were on the boat behind him when the family tried to cross the Adriatic Sea to Italy. His parents died when their boat sank.
32-year-old Nigerian Thomas Kalu, 20-year-old Agron Kastrioti and 36-year-old Petr Hrubes were all acquitted of violent disorder. But, like Gaba, they were rearrested and detained under immigration powers. The only exception was Petr Hrubes who had exceptional leave to remain. After the charges against him were dropped, Agron Kastrioti, was held at HMP Woodhill, a category A prison, where staff were under the impression he was a convicted prisoner.
Three men were found not guilty of violent disorder by the jury. They were 23-year-old Nigerian Lucky Jacobs, 29-year-old Nigerian Kayode Abdul and 25-year-old Kosovan George Tuka. Again, they were all re-arrested and detained under immigration powers.
Aliane Ahmed pleaded guilty to violent disorder and Nassem Mosstaffa pleaded guilty to affray. Having already spent time on remand in prison, the sentences they were likely to receive would have been shorter than if they had pleaded not guilty and then been found guilty of the offences. Aliane, a 29-year-old Algerian, who has now been held in detention for 27 months, attempted suicide on a number of occasions while on remand at Wormwood Scrubs. He was sentenced to 18 months which has already been served on remand. The Home Office has stated its intention to deport him to Algeria at the end of his sentence. Nassem Mosstaffa, a Moroccan who was 19-years old at the time of the fire and is now 21, pleaded guilty to affray (throwing a half-empty plastic bottle at police lines some distance away) and was sentenced to three months, which had already been served on remand. Kevin White of the Prison Service riot squad said ‘At no time did we feel threatened. Our role was to contain the situation,’ and he also commented that the bottles ‘were just token gestures’. Nassem was acquitted of violent disorder and arson. The judge described the evidence against him as ‘tenuous’. Nassem was also rearrested and detained under immigration powers.
Throughout the trial most of the defendants were effectively destitute, having had all benefits withdrawn. Yet they were expected to arrive at court on time each day. They were supported emotionally and financially by the Campaign for Justice in the Yarl’s Wood Trial. The Campaign now plans to support the appeals of Henry Momodu and Behar Limani, as well as continuing support for the men who have been released from immigration detention and are awaiting decisions on their asylum claims.
Continuing the campaign
The Campaign is also gearing up to challenge the re-opening of Yarl’s Wood on 28 September when it will be holding a chained procession to the detention centre. The procession will start at midday from the John Howard Memorial statue in Bedford, (which is a monument to the memory of the penal reform campaigner). A spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop Arbitrary Detentions at Yarl’s Wood commented on the proposed opening: ‘Immediately after the fire, Home Secretary David Blunkett praised Group 4, saying they acquitted themselves with “dedication and courage”. Re-opening Yarl’s Wood, with Group 4, before the long overdue Inquiry into the Yarl’s Wood incident, means subjecting more human beings to ostensibly the same regime and risks. Would this happen if those people were British?’
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.