Last week the inquest into the death of Habib Ullah was suddenly halted as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) made an application to the coroner to stop proceedings so it could reopen its investigation into the five police officers involved.
Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah, (39) died on 3 July 2008 after a stop and search that was carried out by High Wycombe police on a car in which Habib was a passenger in. Five police officers were involved in restraining Habib who became ‘limp’ and later died in hospital. The cause of death was found to be cardiac arrest.
Maximum security inquest
The inquest took place in slightly unusual circumstances, at the Evreham Adult Education Centre, located in rural Iver near Slough. The centre was apparently the only location that could be found to hold the inquest as recent funding cuts has resulted in numerous court buildings shutting in recent months. On arrival there were four security guards plus (employed by a private company) roaming the grounds of the centre, with everybody having to sign in and then bags and coats searched and everybody had to pass through a knife arch/metal detector, with even more security guards watching. This process had to be repeated every time a person left and re-entered the court. Having attended numerous inquests over the years the level of security was surprising.
The request by the IPCC came after it emerged at the inquest, which opened on 6 December, that the five police officers had amended the statements that were submitted to the IPCC, which carried out an investigation into the death. The first police officer to give evidence told the court that he and his fellow officers had submitted statements to superiors but that these had been returned so that amendments could be made to them following legal advice from the Police Federation solicitor. Once changes had been made, they were then submitted to the IPCC and it is on these statements that the IPCC investigation was based.
Despite the inquest being halted midway through hearing evidence, the evidence that was already heard in open court was already damning.
After the inquest jury was sworn in, the first to give evidence were the two people who were in the car with Habib when police stopped it.
Emma Forbes, a friend of Habib’s, told the inquest how the events of that day were ones that she was not likely to forget. She told the court how the three friends, Habib, Morris Nedd and herself, had travelled, on a warm July evening, from Slough, where Habib had lived, and were pulling up outside her home in High Wycombe when two police cars pulled up behind them and they were ‘ordered’ out of the car by male and female police officers. What they did not know was that they had been followed off the M40 motorway by police in an unmarked car. The car was searched thoroughly as were its occupants. One officer was filling in paperwork related to the search as Habib walked a short distance and was followed by other police officers, one of whom said, ‘We know you got something on you’ and then Habib had dropped his trousers to show that he was not carrying any drugs. As Habib was walking back towards the car one of the police officers said ‘You’ve got something in your mouth’ and then, according to Emma, ‘it all went a bit chaotic’. She told how a number of police officers had gone over to try and restrain Habib by trying to get his arms behind his back and as they did so she heard one say ‘break his arm’, describing the scene as a ‘bit rough’ and that officers were ‘trying to put their fingers in his mouth’ and ‘before they strangled him I could see him swallow something’. One plain clothed officer had also struck Habib on the back a number of times. Habib was then taken to the ground with five officers involved. She described them as ‘putting their hands around his throat and pressing down’ and how one officer had his ‘thumbs on Habib’s windpipe’. Another officer was described as kneeling on Habib’s back, with another holding his legs down and two on his arms. She had shouted ‘He’s going blue’ begging the officers to stop and then they had let go of him and she could see that Habib’s ‘eyes were glazed and open’. Habib had not said anything until he went limp and the only sound she heard was ‘gasping’. The officers had then ‘stood around doing absolutely nothing… looking like gormless idiots’. They looked ‘shocked’ as if ‘they couldn’t believe what had happened’ and she ‘didn’t see anybody doing anything … they were all stood up’.
During her evidence she also said ‘I’d like to point out just because you are a drug addict it doesn’t mean you deserve to be killed’.
Mr Morris Nedd told the court about the search and how it had seemed to be routine until he had heard officers shouting that Habib had something in his mouth and how he had been ‘grabbed’ by a couple officers. He described Habib as ‘clenched and stiff’ and that police officers ‘were having quite a bit of trouble getting him to the ground’ and that when they had, [facedown], one officer was on his back and it looked as if they were ‘trying to stop him from swallowing something’. He described seeing officers ‘pushing [their] thumbs up under his neck’ and ‘squeezing his windpipe’ and that they had continued to use force even when ‘he wasn’t struggling’. Later reiterating ‘I can’t understand why they used so much force … it was a horrific amount of force’.
The next evidence to be heard was that of the five police officers involved. Three officers gave evidence from behind screens and were only visible to the coroner, jury, legal counsel and chosen members of Habib’s family.
The first officer to give evidence, Detective Constable Richard Bazeley, revealed that original statements had been amended following legal advice. He told the inquest that he saw PC Christopher Pomery gripping Habib’s throat, adding: ‘It’s not a trained technique, I don’t know what he was trying to do.’ When asked why this was not in his statement to the IPCC he replied: ‘That particular point I know I was advised to take out … I don’t know why. I didn’t like the idea of doing it to be honest … I thought it’s probably going to look suspicious – exactly how it’s probably looking now … but it was professional advice.’
Detective Sergeant Jason Liles, who was in charge of the stop and search told the inquest that he had thought that Habib was being ‘difficult’ and that he was ‘faking injury or illness’ and that ‘no first aid was required’ as Habib’s chest was moving. He also told the inquest that Habib had been placed in the recovery position but this was not included in his statement to the IPCC. He also claimed that officers had been unable to check Habib’s airway as his jaw was ‘clamped’ shut.
A female police officer told the inquest that she had been advised to edit her statement by the Police Federation legal adviser during a meeting at which a senior TVP officer (Chief inspector Stephanie Cook) was also present. She was reminded of amendments to her original statement which included, ‘Mr Ullah lurched forward’ [after the back slap] following the changes the words ‘lurched forward’ had been removed. She could not remember why it had been removed. In another change to her original statement: ‘I could hear a noise like he was trying to cough something up’ had been edited to ‘making a noise like a cough’. Critical information was removed from the first statement. And the officer ‘could not remember’ why this had been done.
Police officers also admitted to striking Habib’s thigh, giving him a back slap. One admitted to grabbing Habib’s’ head with his left hand and his thumb going into Habib’s eye socket. Pain compliance techniques were also used.
The inquest was into its second week and was hearing medical evidence when the IPCC put its application before the coroner to discharge the jury, which he did. The IPCC has now reopened its investigation in to the five police officers. The IPCC press office told IRR news: ‘The Coroner has agreed to an IPCC application to adjourn the inquest into the death of Habib Ullah. The IPCC has decided to re-open its independent investigation in the light of new information arising from statements made by police officers while giving evidence at the inquest.’
The decision by the IPCC to reopen its investigation into the officers is highly unusual. The fact that it had already conducted an investigation and found no evidence of any wrongdoing is worrying. This failure to pass a file to the CPS to consider whether charges could be brought against the officers had already been subject to a judicial review by Habib’s family who were unhappy with the decision.
After the decision to adjourn the inquest, Saqib Deshmukh of the Justice4Paps Campaign, commented ‘The decision vindicates the family’s and the campaign’s position from day one, that events after Habib died were badly managed and fixed by Thames Valley Police but it is frustrating for us that the inquest ended as we felt we were getting somewhere. But if we get closer to a criminal prosecution of the officers it will be worth it. But our lack of confidence (like that of many other families) in the IPCC is still strong and we are cautious about their motives.’
Habib’s mother, three sisters, wife and his 14-year-old daughter sat through the inquest and listened intently and bravely to the, sometimes harrowing, evidence. They were allowed to see the faces of the three police officers that gave evidence from behind screens. Habib’s brother and cousin, had to sit in the public seating area where the officers could not be seen.
In a statement to the inquest about Habib, his wife Mussarat Habib, said that she was not aware of her husband’s use of drugs before he died. ‘[He] showed no signs of addiction and never took any drugs in the home … Now he’s gone and life is nothing without him. I can’t see the future clearly and I worry about my children and their future.’
The family and campaign will be holding a demonstration outside High Wycombe police station in the New Year to mark Habib’s 42nd birthday.
Facebook: Justice for Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah
Bucks Free Press (14 December 2010): ‘Paramedic gives evidence at Habib Ullah inquest’
Bucks Free Press (11 December 2010): ‘Police officer tells inquest why he was seen gripping Habib Ullah’s throat’
Bucks Free Press (10 December 2010): ‘Policeman thought Habib Ullah was “faking” injury, inquest hears’
Bucks Free Press (8 December 2010): ‘Detective advised to remove part of statement, inquest hears’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Remembering Habib Ullah – one year on
Read an IRR News story: ‘Our parents did not come to this country to bury their children’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Family question police role in death of Asian man