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System let murderers walk free

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Issue 1726

Surjit Singh Chhokar case

System let murderers walk free

A CASE of institutional racism on the scale of the Stephen Lawrence case is rocking the Scottish establishment. Crown prosecutors last week failed for the second time in two years to convict anyone for the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar.

The 32 year old Sikh was stabbed through the heart outside his home in Wishaw, Lanarkshire, in November 1998. The police immediately discounted any racial motivation. Yet one of those involved, Ronnie Coulter, told his sister within hours of the murder that he had “stabbed the black bastard”.

Three men, Ronnie Coulter, Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery, were charged with the murder. They should have all stood trial together. But days later Montgomery and Andrew Coulter were released by the Crown Office without any explanation.

This was an open invitation for the men to point the finger at each other to avoid conviction. This is exactly what happened. There is now no prospect of anyone being brought to account for the murder.

Socialist Worker talked to Chhokar family spokesperson AAMER ANWAR:

“THE CHHOKARS are devastated. It is bad enough to lose a son, but to then have to campaign for justice is a disgrace. Surjit was killed because of the colour of his skin, and his family were denied justice because of the colour of their skin. The morning after Surjit was murdered a very senior officer was saying that it was not racist. Later on they were briefing journalists, saying Surjit was not a savoury character.

The authorities can’t deny that they have treated the family very badly. The first meeting between the family and the police lasted just six and a half minutes. The Chhokars were not even told the first trial was starting. There was no interpreter in the court room. The only person to talk to them was a policeman who told them to clear the court after the trial collapsed.

This happened just two weeks after the Lawrence report came out. In the last two years our struggle has indicated how the police and the Crown Office covered up for one another. The authorities are still refusing to say it is institutionalised racism. But when you put together the fundamental errors, the incompetence, the treatment of the family, it all adds up. The family believes that if their son was white the police would have acted differently.

Like the Lawrences, the family has had to fight to get any admission. It was only when Neville Lawrence and the trade unions backed us that we started getting party support.

Every political party in the Scottish Parliament came out and backed us. We want to know what they are going to do now. What are the Labour Party going to do? They’re the ones in power. We met the first minister, Henry McLeish, on Wednesday but he refused to launch an independent public inquiry.

It is clear that the powers are not willing to sanction anything after Lawrence, that they are going to go no further. The family has been told there will be no cover up, but after two years the family has no faith in the justice system. As Mr Chhokar told McLeish, “You people have ruled the world and claimed your justice is the best, but it is the worst. There is no justice if you are black.”

The Tories have raised the idea of changing the law so defendants can be tried again. But we don’t want this case to be used to attack the rights of defendants. Such a law would be used against the black community, or to fit up people like the Birmingham Six, not against racist killers. Some people blamed the jury because it had no black people. But the jury was put in an impossible situation by the failure of the prosecutors. The hopeful part of it all has been the support we have got. Every trade union in Scotland backs the family.

It’s been working class people, who feel that what has happened to the family has been a disgrace, that have backed us. People know that this is not just an issue of colour, but of class. There is a different system of justice for black people and for poor people.”

  • Contact the Chhokar Family Justice Campaign, c/o Scottish Fire Brigades Union, 4th Floor, 52 St Enoch Square, Glasgow G1 4AA. Phone 07980 443 807.

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