In the second instalment of our series Murder in Bristol, Liana Aghajanian continues her story of Iranian national Bijan Ebrahimi, who was murdered in Bristol in July 2013.
Read Murder in Bristol, part one.
Additional reporting by Giles Crosse
The Brislington Police Station's proximity to the crime scene is breathtaking. How could a previously uninteresting area become part of national debate on the state of Britain's race crime? Broomhill inevitably throws up more questions that it can answer.
Only minutes from Capgrave Crescent, housing becomes larger, wider; expensive cars line gravel drives. It seems impossible the area shelters the anger behind Ebrahimi's death.
Yet either this is the truth, or despite longstanding police failings, 2013's crimes came down to exceptional, uncontrollable and violent individuals, beyond the help or intervention of any society.
The shocking crime has rattled more than just Capgrave Crescent or Bristol: it sent waves across most of Britain. Television personality Richard Madeley compared it to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, citing mass hysteria and injustice. “How could this happen on a British street?” the Telegraph newspaper asked. The Independent called it “a death foretold.”
To date, no evidence backing up pedophilia claims have been found. This is because Ebrahimi was not a pedophile. But he was different, and being different in the part of town where he lived meant at best that he was never going to fit in. At worst, he would become a target.
His Middle Eastern complexion and accent instantly set him apart from his neighbors. He was single, introverted and lived with his beloved tabby cat, Mushi. And although his neighbors and the media mislabeled him a lonely eccentric, the picture of him that emerges from dozens of interviews with family members and social services is that of a sensitive, devoted family man who loved spending time with his two nephews.
Bristol was becoming more diverse, but not necessarily Ebrahimi’s isolated corner of the city. According to census figures, while Bristol's black and minority ethnic population doubled between 2001 and 2011 from 8.2 percent to 16 percent, in Brislington East, where Ebrahimi lived, 86 percent of residents remained White British, according to a 2013 Neighborhood Partnership Statistical Profile published by the Brislington Community Partnership and Bristol City Council.
Racially motivated incidents in the high social needs area where resources are limited have gone from two to 32, according to Stand Against Racism’s annual report, published in April 2014. In the same month, Avon and Somerset Police announced the closure of several police stations in a cost-cutting measure across Bristol. One of them is in Brislington, just near the site of Ebrahimi's murder.
The hotly debated connection between immigrants and their influence on Britain's current social housing crisis touted by the political right has aggravated race relations, helped along by tabloids like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Some articles report on the “massive” impact asylum seekers and refugees have on Britain's public housing have so far proved unfounded and added to anti-immigrant hysteria. A 2009 Equality and Human Rights Commission Report on social housing allocation and immigrant communities found that some “64 percent of new immigrants to the UK over the last five years are housed in private rented accommodation.” The report also added that less than two percent of new migrants are in social housing, whereas over 90 percent are UK born citizens.
The government has previously been criticized for housing asylum seekers like Ebrahimi in poor, deprived areas where they are more likely to suffer racial assaults and violence – an immigration reform introduced in 1999's Immigration and Asylum Act.
A 2011 report by UK-based Institute of Race Relations noted that this dispersal system led to housing being provided in hard-to-let and deprived areas. “Racist attacks against asylum seekers dramatically increased as dispersal policies were introduced,” the report says.
According to Dr. Patricia Hynes, who authored “The Dispersal and Social Exclusion of Asylum Seekers: Between Liminality and Belonging,” around 70 to 80 percent of dispersal locations included the 88 most deprived local authority districts in England.
Though Ebrahimi ended up in Bristol to be close to family, authorities carelessly placed him in areas that increased his vulnerability. He had emigrated to his adopted country in search of a better life. Instead, England was where it horrifically ended.
A Trial Unfolds
Since Ebrahimi’s death, his killers have been brought to trial and sentenced to prison. Lee James received a life sentence with a minimum term of 18 years before parole. At their sentencing hearing in November 2013 at Bristol Crown Court, Justice Simon called the killing an act of “murderous justice.” Stephen Norley, whose employer wrote a reference describing him as “the most grounded, stable and honest person” he had ever employed, received a four-year term for his role in the murder.
Though Norley pleaded guilty to assisting an offender, to helping Lee with the murder, the maximum sentence for such an offence is 10 years, and Norley received just four, citing his brief role, the simple nature of his assistance, and his guilt plea. Norley will serve half that time, two years, and then be out on licence for the remaining two.
An investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) examining police wrongdoing and negligence began in September 2013.
The office of the Avon & Somerset Police & Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens, whose mandate is, according to her website, to “protect residents and police from political interference;” reduce crime; and be “a fierce advocate on behalf of victims and… ensure that offenders are dealt with robustly through the criminal justice system,” told Iranwire: “There is a complex picture emerging about the days and years before Mr Ebrahimi’s tragic murder. It is clear that there have been failings by the police.” As the investigation, which she said she believed would be “thorough and robust”, was ongoing, she urged the public to get in touch with any information they had that might shed light on the case. She also said it was vital that the Constabulary “learn lessons” and got to the "truth of what happened and report back to Mr Ebrahimi’s family, the police and public as soon as possible. “
Finally, on December 5, 2014, the IPCC announced that three Avon & Somerset police officers and one police community support officer were being charged with criminal offences. The Crown Prosecution Service decided that Police Constables Kevin Duffy, Leanne Winter and Helen Harris will face charges of misconduct in public office. Support officer Andrew Passmore will face charges of misconduct and perverting the course of justice. The IPPC stated that the police constables had failed to respond to Ebrahimi’s calls for help. Passmore is accused of giving false information to an emergency services telephone operator and of giving different accounts to the police investigation and the investigation conducted by the IPCC. At least 12 other police officers and staff face potential charges. The IPCC said it would also be reviewing the history of Ebrahimi’s contact with the police, which dated back six years. The trial is due to start on January 14.
Court transcripts show that Ebrahimi made a number of calls to the police station the evening he was killed, but “for one reason or another those messages were not responded to,” said Andrew Langdon, who represented prosecution during the trial.
Community legal defenders and academics have attributed the hate crime to everything from the rampant pedophilia hysteria that has overtaken Britain in the last few years, to a growing anti-immigrant sentiment and the result of the socially deprived, “dark side of working class communities.” Disability hate crime activists also say Ebrahimi was a target because of back problems that rendered him disabled.
But questions, both about the abuse he endured from neighbors as well as the multi-agency failure to protect a vulnerable man who asked for help, remain. Batook Pandya, director of Stand Against Racism and Inequality (SARI), the Bristol-based hate crime charity that has dealt with over 5,000 cases and worked with Ebrahimi for years, called it the worst hate crime he had seen in 23 years work at the organization.
Two of his neighbors had committed the murder. But Bijan — or Ben as he was known locally —had long been sentenced and convicted before the night he was ultimately killed.
This is part Two of a five-part series.