The campaign for a full, independent inquiry into the death in police custody of a 48-year-old Nigerian man last autumn is proving a watershed in the fight against institutionalised racism in Norway.
On 7 September 2006, Eugene Ejike Obiora had much to look forward to. It was his son’s twelfth birthday and he wanted to buy him a present. But when he arrived at the social welfare office in Trondheim, Eugene was disappointed. For some reason his welfare payment was denied. Then the police arrived. How is not clear. The police claim that they were called after the Nigerian became aggressive, but the social welfare officers dispute this. What is accepted is that Eugene refused to leave the office until someone explained what was going on and helped him access his payment.
Death following controversial restraint
Two officers arrived at the social welfare offices and decided to forcibly remove Eugene from the building. When they used the controversial ‘choke hold’, Eugene was heard to call out, ‘are you trying to kill me?’. Backup was summoned and now four officers were involved in restraining Eugene – placing him on the ground on his stomach, with hands cuffed behind his back.
After he lost consciousness, an ambulance was called. But the police decided not to wait for it and, instead, bundled the unconscious Eugene into the back of the police van and took him to hospital. Accident and Emergency staff opened the van door to find Eugene, inert, lying on his stomach, face down. Despite attempts to resuscitate him, it was clear that Eugene was already dead by the time he reached hospital.
The official cause of death was oxygen deficiency most likely caused by choking. Within days of the death, demonstrations were called in Trondheim and Oslo in support of the family and to expose alleged police brutality.
Weak police investigation renews anger
The authorities clearly hoped that a Police Complaints Commission (Spesialenheten) investigation would take the heat out of the incident. It took eight months to report its findings – eventually dismissing the case against the four police officers (who had remained in post during the investigation) on the basis that there was no proof that any action on the part of the police had led to Eugene’s death.
Call for independent investigation
Demonstrations were quickly called in five towns including Oslo, Trondheim and Bergen demanding a full and independent investigation into what had taken place that day. The family’s lawyer, Abid Raja, backed demands for an independent investigation, saying that the officers should be charged with murder. Several MPs joined the campaign, which is strongly supported by African community organisations, and demands not only an independent inquiry into Eugene’s death but also into the investigation carried out by the Police Complaints Commission.
Learning from other countries’ campaigning
The Organisation Against Public Discrimination (OMOD) in one of the groups that has written to the Minister of Justice documenting the numerous failures of the internal police investigation. OMOD points out: ‘When a custodial death occurs, the officers involved should have been suspended … until the investigation is terminated. This is regular practice in the UK … The practice of keeping people handcuffed on their stomach for any length of time is illegal in Denmark … The choke hold should be prohibited with immediate effect.’
OMOD is sceptical about a second investigation into the Police Complaints Commission which has now been proposed by the director general of public prosecutions (Riksadvokaten). For it does not meet campaigners’ demands for a full and independent investigation into the death. The Complaints Commission is still seen as part of the police.
Norway’s ‘Stephen Lawrence’
Anita Rathore, spokesperson for OMOD, told IRR News that the tragic death of Eugene Obiora has proved to be a watershed in Norway and compares it to the murder of Stephen Lawrence. While African groups have taken the lead in this campaign, minority youth from all ethnic backgrounds have been involved. ‘In the past, Norwegian society has been very uncritical of the police who enjoy high levels of public confidence. The minority experience of police racism has simply not been acknowledged. But this case has challenged Norwegian society. A lot of people have come together. And young people are expressing their opinions in the media – the perspectives of young minority people are at last being heard.’