Sheku justice fight gathers strength
July 25, 2015 by Grace Franklin
A campaign to establish the facts around the death of Sheku Bayoh who died in police custody in Kirkcaldy on Sunday 3 May 2015 is growing. More than 100 people from a variety of campaigning organisations highlighted the need for clarity, truth and Police Scotland accountability at a conference in Glasgow on Saturday 25 July 2015.
Organised by the Justice for Sheku Bayoh Campaign and Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC), others supporting the day were the Ethnic Minority Civic Congress (EMCC), Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees and the STUC Black Workers’ Committee.
They aim to work together on the central issues of Sheku’s death in police custody to obtain justice not only in his case but in others across the UK.
Sheku, a British Gas employee and a black man, was surrounded by police who claimed they had received reports of a man carrying a knife. They used batons, CS spray, handcuffs and leg restraints. Aged 31 and father of two, Sheku, was dead on arrival at the local Victoria Hospital. He had no history of violence.
Born in Sierra Leone and brought up in London before moving to Kirkcaldy when he was 17, Sheku has lived and worked in the town since then.
His family’s lawyer, human rights champion Aamer Anwar, opened the conference with a detailed account of the events before and after Sheku’s death. He said there had been 11 deaths in police custody in Scotland in 2013 – more than double the number recorded in England. ‘Police officers are not above the law,’ said the lawyer. ‘It is a disgrace that it took 32 days before the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) got statements from the officers involved. If PIRC is not to be seen as a toothless body, it must be capable of exposing the truth.’ He also said that Sheku’s family had been given five different account by Police Scotland of the events leading to Sheku’s death. He concluded that the family were not prepared to wait years to find out who was responsible for the man’s death.
Richard Haley, Chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) said: ‘We still don’t know the full facts. But it is beyond reasonable doubt that the police response is unacceptable. Police Scotland has a responsibility to us, the people of Scotland and so does the Scottish Government.’ He also said: ‘Race is the missing word. I believe racism in the police is institutionalised and has to be confronted. Far too many people die in police custody.’
Ade Johnson, brother-in-law of Sheku posed the question: ‘Who polices the police? Who are the police accountable to?’ He said the family were still waiting for apologies for the way they were treated after Sheku’s death and they needed details of what exactly happened in the last minutes of his life. ‘How hard is it to tell the truth?’ he asked. ‘It is very hard for PIRC to tell police officers to tell the truth. Will we still be asking these questions ten years from now when Sheku’s sons will be old enough to ask these questions? Every time a police officer passes, we ask those questions. We know it will be a long time before we hear the truth. But we are prepared.’
Sheku’s sister, Kadijata Johnson told the conference: ‘Police told us lies. We are still waiting for the truth. We want justice. All of us in Scotland should get justice.’
The other major speaker in the conference morning session was Deborah Coles, co-Director of Inquest. The organisation supports families whose relatives have died in all forms of detention. Its core principles are Truth, Accountability and Justice. Inquest was in touch with Sheku’s family within two days of his death and was the first organisation to offer support, for which the family thanked Inquest publicly.
Said Deborah Coles: ‘When I first read about Sheku’s death, I recognised that he was being demonised in an attempt to distract from the actions of the police.’ Any family has limited resources against a body like the police, so it is a struggle.’
She emphasised that in law, international and UK law, there is a ‘right to life.’ She said: ‘Where a person dies in the hands of the state, this death cannot be treated lightly. It must be treated under the law as the human right to life.’
She added that a disproportionate number of those who died in custody were black or from the ethnic minority communities and said that almost 1000 people had died in police custody in recent times in England and Wales. ‘There has never been a successful prosecution,’ she commented.
‘We have to ask questions of the state – why has there been no action by the state in these circumstances?’
She also underlined the need to remember those people whose cases were not high profile who had died, and the resulting impact, emotional and physical on their loved ones. ‘Sheku’s family are at the beginning of a long journey. I am deeply concerned about this case and implore the Scottish Government and the Crown Office to set up a public inquiry.’