Today is not only Valentine’s Day, but also the day, one year ago, that Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, the government’s flagship, was burnt, almost to the ground. The government’s asylum policy of ‘faster, firmer, fairer’ was dealt a severe blow. Now, the victims of British asylum policy, those asylum seekers who were locked up at Yarl’s Wood, are due to go on trial in April in connection with the fire.
The fire was, reportedly, triggered by an incident in which a resident, who wanted to visit the chapel, was manhandled by staff. The fire caused approximately £35 million worth of damage, destroying half of the centre which was not fitted with fire sprinklers. As a result of the fire, thirteen men were charged with offences including arson and violent disorder.
Yarl’s Wood opened on 19 November 2001, described as the biggest detention centre in Europe, with the capacity to hold 900 detainees. At the time of the fire it held 385 men, women and children. Group 4, the private company running Yarl’s Wood, is the world’s second largest security company. The company group operates over 50 prisons in over 80 countries worldwide, making it £42 million in net profit in the three months to September 2002.
Concerns about the trial
The trial of the Yarl’s Wood defendants is due to start on 23 April 2003 at Harrow Crown Court and expected to last at least three months. Supporters of the defendants have voiced concerns about the fairness of the trial, since so many of the witnesses to the events 14 February 2002 have been deported. One solicitor estimates that as many as eight, out of a potential eighteen witnesses for his client, have been deported.
Eleven of the thirteen men are now out on bail, but two remain in prison. Nassem Mosstaffa is held at Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute and Aliane Ahmed is held at Wormwood Scrubs under immigration law. Aliane has tried to take his life on a number of occasions. He made an attempt while he was being held at HMP Norwich, where he reported facing racial abuse. A friend who visited him, told IRR News: ‘He has tried many times since. Last time I saw him in the Scrubs he had terrible marks around his neck from the previous attempt to hang himself – he was resuscitated in hospital, then returned back to the Scrubs.’ The men have spent considerable time in jail – first, at Yarl’s Wood as immigration detainees and then, after the fire, in prison in connection with the fire. In November 2002, at Harrow Crown Court, four men were released because custody time limits had been exceeded. The men were ready to leave the court when they were re-detained under immigration powers. They were all released the following week after legal challenges were made by the men’s legal teams.
Defendants and their charges:
- Aliane Ahmed – charged with violent disorder + arson, on 01/03 CPS dropped charges of arson. He is still being held in HMP Wormwood Scrubs under immigration powers.
- Nassem Mosstaffa – violent disorder, arson and affray. Held at Feltham YOI.
- Klodjan Gaba – violent disorder and arson. On bail.
- Kayode Abdul – violent disorder. On bail.
- Gjering Tuka – violent disorder. On bail.
- Behar Limani – violent disorder. On bail.
- Tomas Kalu – violent disorder and common assault. On bail.
- Agron Kastrioti – violent disorder. On bail.
- Emmanuel Kouakou – violent disorder charge dropped due to insufficient evidence, charged with ABH instead.
- Ojo Johnson – violent disorder and arson. On bail.
- Henry Momodu – violent disorder and arson. On bail.
- Peter Hubris – violent disorder. Out on bail with ELR status.
- Lucky Jacobs – violent disorder and common assault. Out on bail.
Supporters are appealing for funds to get the bailed defendants, who are spread around the country from Sheffield to Folkestone, to court for the duration of the trial. The men are not allowed to work and will therefore find it hard to fund the travel costs for attending court on a daily basis for the three or four months of the trial. Supporters will also be present at Harrow Crown Court on 24 Feb at the next pre-trial hearing to show their support for the defendants.