The trial of 13 men accused of burning down the Yarls Wood detention centre ended last Friday with Group 4 being condemned by all
Instead of giving the government and right wing press an excuse to rant about criminal behaviour by refugees, the trial exposed the brutal treatment dished out to asylum seekers.
The £100 million Yarls Wood centre was a key element in David Blunkett's plan to speed up the deportation of asylum seekers. Set to be Europe's biggest detention centre, it opened in January last year. Within a month, it had gone up in smoke. Officers from the private security firm running Yarls Wood, Group 4, sparked a riot by their rough handling of a detainee and hours later the centre was burnt down.
David Blunkett and the gutter press immediately bayed for an example to be made of the inmates. Yet despite a diatribe of prejudice about asylum seekers, only four out of 16 original charges stuck. The trial showed how detainees helped evacuate inmates and Group 4 officers during the fire. It was because of their actions that no one died. It is Group 4 and the Home Office who should be on trial.
Evidence given at the trial highlighted the mistreatment of detainees. The trial judge said the evidence of abuse 'raises questions about the sort of people who are given responsibility for the custody of vulnerable people who are being held without having committed any crime, often for an unlimited period.'
Yarls Wood was a wooden building with brick cladding. No sprinkler system was installed, against the advice of the local fire service. Group 4 staff were unsure about fire drills and exits. On the night of the fire they were told to 'play it by ear'. Group 4 guards were instructed to lock detainees in the burning building. Inmates had to break reinforced glass windows to escape. They were left outside in the freezing cold all night.
Bedfordshire police testified that 'Group 4 were themselves suspects, as a company, and were investigated for the offence of corporate manslaughter. Since no one died at Yarls Wood, no charges were brought.' Group 4 stopped firefighters getting into Yarls Wood for an hour.
The prosecution told the court, 'Group 4 have been a national laughing stock ever since they blundered into the field of private custodial services. No one present during this trial could fail to understand why, could they?' Yet shortly after the fire, David Blunkett praised Group 4's 'dedication and courage'.
Group 4 are planning to reopen Yarls Wood in September. A spokesperson told Radio 4 last Saturday the centre was more 'holiday camp than prison'.
Defence lawyers argued that the defendants could not get a fair trial. He quoted anti-refugee headlines from the Daily Mail, Express and Telegraph. The judge dismissed the argument.
Later, the case almost collapsed when a juror said two other jurors had such hostility towards asylum seekers they could not assess the evidence fairly. The judge allowed the trial to continue. Over 100 MPs signed an early day motion demanding an end to the deportation of eyewitnesses, but it continued anyway. Lucky Jacobs requested 26 witnesses-only two were available.
Home Office minister Beverley Hughes sent a letter shown to the judge saying, 'No one has been removed without the police being given the opportunity to interview them.' But, in court, detective superintendent Richter said this 'was not accurate'.
Group 4 'fouled up' the gathering of evidence, according to the prosecution. Their staff were shown photos of suspects. The judge said, 'This was a major breach. Identification took place in contravention of all the codes.' Group 4 sent staff on a 'witness training course' and organised 'group counselling'. The police said this 'verged on illegal witness coaching' but they, too, were criticised for not taking statements from those being deported.
Thirteen people were charged in connection with the riot. The trial lasted nearly four months and cost around £1 million. Two pleaded guilty to charges of affray and violent disorder. Six had all charges against them dropped, after weeks and months in prison. But that didn't mean they were free.
Klodjan Gaba, who was 17 when he fled from Albania and watched his parents drown when their boat sank, was deported within hours of his acquittal. Lucky Jacobs, Kayode Abdul and Gjerig Tuka were all found not guilty of violent disorder last Friday. They were immediately detained by immigration services. Henry Momadou was found not guilty of arson, but he and Behar Limani were found guilty of violent disorder. They were sentenced to four years in prison. An appeal is planned.
The defendants did not indulge in an orgy of violence-they helped to rescue Group 4 staff. Group 4 officer Mark Curtis testified that two of the men on trial led him to safety, with their arms round him.
Ricardo Rocchi, another officer, told the court he had been scared and asthmatic and two of the defendants reassured him and escorted him to safety. Defendants also helped rescue other detainees. Custody officer Sylvia Burns told how defendant Behar Limani helped her evacuate families, saying, 'Get out, save yourself, I'll get them out.'
'I felt as if I was dying'
Eunice is a 55 year old grandmother who fled Nigeria after her husband was killed. The prosecution branded her a 'drama queen' and 'trouble maker'. Eunice, who has walked with a stick ever since she was 'restrained' by Group 4 officers, told Socialist Worker the real story.
'I WAS so constipated because of the food at the centre. The pain was very bad. I felt as if my body was coming apart inside me. I later found out I could have had a prolapsed womb. I saw some of the boys in detention. They call me Mum, and I said to them, I need help, I need to see a doctor. I went to see the nurse but she wouldn't help me. I was taken back to my room. Later that evening the pain got worse. I felt as if I was dying. I wanted to go to the chapel, to pray for the pain. But the officers did not want me there. One of them slapped me and I shouted, 'Oh my god!' Other inmates heard and tried to come to my rescue. The officers hit me and kicked me with their boots. They held me round the neck-there were marks from their fingers and thumbs.'
Four male guards held Eunice down, then dragged her along the floor and locked her in a stairwell. This sparked the riot.
Group 4 custody officers admitted 'taking Eunice down'. In court, an officer described Eunice talking 'gibberish' when she was speaking in her own language. Eunice continues, 'The next thing I remember is waking up outside. Other inmates had helped me. But the officers locked me in a part of Yarls Wood that had not burned. When they threw food in, some fell into the toilet. After three days a chaplain came and I was able to see my daughter and grandchild.'
Since then Eunice has been placed in Newhall prison in Yorkshire and Tinsley House, which is a centre where they remove people from Britain. 'They came to deport me. But when I was on the plane I realised they had not returned my real passport to me. The pilot refused to fly and I was taken off the plane. I have found people who want to help me. So there is no more crying and fear. I am finally out on bail now.'