Not suicide but an open verdict, was the pronouncement of coroner Leonard Gorodkin on the death of a failed asylum seeker, who walked in to the offices of Refugee Action in Manchester and set himself on fire.
On 21 October 2004, Manchester Coroner’s Court heard that a verdict of suicide could not be established beyond all reasonable doubt. Israfil Shiri, an Iranian national, arrived in the UK in the back of a truck in August 2001 and was finally refused asylum in November 2002. In Iran he had been a dissident member of the Basij, a volunteer army concerned with enforcing Iran’s Islamic code. When the authorities obtained documented evidence of his life as a gay man, he fled to avoid execution.
Giving evidence to the inquest, Kamran Adib Qudis a friend and former co-resident recalled the eviction of Israfil Shiri from their New Prospect Housing address in Salford. The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) ordered this eviction following the Home Office’s rejection of Israfil ‘s appeal. He was denied a home, benefits and the right to work – Israfil became totally destitute. Even access to his prescribed medication was blocked. Unable to eat without bleeding and vomiting, Israfil was a sick man. Kamran, his friend, pleaded with officials who removed all Israfil’s personal effects from the house, but to no avail.
Living a transient hand to mouth existence, from then on, he stayed with friends. On other occasions he would find shelter and sleep in wheelie bins.
On 23 August 2003, at about ten past three in the afternoon, Israfil met Natalie Underwood at the offices of Refugee Action. According to Ms Underwood, although discussing his medical condition and fear of deportation, he appeared calm and pleasant. He shook her hand at the end of the interview and promised to come back the following day. He returned a few minutes later doused in a flammable liquid. With two flicks from a green cigarette lighter he turned himself into a human torch. The court heard how the intensity of the flames could be felt from several feet away and how Israfil collapsed to the floor as the flames were extinguished. In agony, yet still able to speak, he screamed that he did not want to die and that he did not want to be sent back to Iran.
Israfil died in Manchester’s Wythenshawe hospital ten days later on 3 September 2003. According to the doctors report he had suffered 78 per cent burns to his body, the worst of these being to the chest, abdomen, and upper limbs.
In recording an open verdict, the coroner remarked that the evidence and conclusions provided by Greater Manchester Fire Service in the actions of the deceased, had been helpful. In his summation the coroner remarked: ‘I have heard a lot of what the deceased may have been trying to do… It was the act of a desperate man.’
However, he was unable to comment on government policy but it was clear that Israfil had had his application refused and that he was unable to find a specialist solicitor to fight the appeal. The only way to avoid being sent back to Iran was to provide a medical report saying that he was not fit. But since he had no permanent accommodation and his asylum claim had been refused, he was unable to get access to a doctor.
Closing the proceedings, the coroner thanked the Committee for Asylum Seekers and Dr Rhetta Moran who had represented the family of Israfil Shiri at the inquest.