In part three 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.
Read Murder in Bristol, part two.
A Tehran boyhood
Bijan Ebrahimi was born in Tehran in 1969, the youngest in a family of five children, three girls and two boys. His father was a railway engineer and his mother a homemaker. As a young child, he loved table tennis, spending most of his time and effort on the game. He eventually reached national ranks as a table tennis champion in Iran, and was an avid reader, mostly of history books.
He endured the first in what would be a long series of traumas when he was 11 years old. His mothered suffered a stroke and was left paralyzed. By the time he reached his 20s, she had passed away. But just one year after her death, his father became seriously ill, and Bijan looked after him without complaint until 1994, when he died of cancer.
The death of his parents tore Bijan apart more than any of the Ebrahimi siblings. In the last years of his life, he would often sit with his sister in her Bristol house, reminiscing about them. Their conversations would at times make the sensitive Bijan cry.
Bijan had wanted to attend university in Iran, but between looking after his ill parents and the stringent prerequisites to get into institutions that came about after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he was unable to pursue this.
Two of his sisters, the two he had been inseparable from during childhood and had practically raised him as their own child, had emigrated in the early 1990s to England through marriage. Over the years, the Ebrahimi family had also built up a wide network of relatives living across the UK in Bristol, Malvern and Birmingham.
In 2001 Bijan decided it was time for him to make the move too. He arrived in Bristol as a refugee the same year, the year a then 34-year-old Tory David Cameron entered politics.
His sisters, now with families of their own and adapted to British society, helped him make the transition. His elder sister, now an NHS nurse, had come first, just after she was married in Iran. His second eldest sister Manisha Moores had met her British husband on a trip to visit her sister and she had moved to the UK too. You stay straight, you’ve still got lots of chances ahead of you, they told him. We’ll help you. Just stay straight and be strong.
“He thought that it was a better place for him to grow here,” Moores, who works for a large UK retailer said. “He felt that he would gain something more than if he stayed there.”
Bijan was determined, and what he really wanted to gain was a university education. Though he knew he had his sisters’ backing, he also wanted to reestablish his life in the UK on his own terms and conditions. Starting over meant taking care of himself, by himself.
For the first 18 months in his adopted country as a refugee, he looked for work to support himself, often as a shop assistant or at take away restaurants. But the physically demanding nature of those jobs aggravated an already painful back pain condition — curvature of the spine — he had had since childhood.
Unable to work long, draining hours, he decided to shift his focus back to college, registering as disabled and eventually receiving government-assisted council housing. Despite his disability, he completed degrees in plumbing and carpentry and was in the middle of an IT course when he was killed. He focused on his studies, gardening and his family – visiting his sister who lived in Bristol frequently.
But just as Bijan was getting his grounding in a new country, a series of appalling events unfolded over a number of years that led to his death in summer 2013.
Ebrahimi was temporarily placed in a homeless hostel as he awaited housing subsidies. Trying out his independence and not wanting to give his family any reason to worry about it, he kept the details of the arrangement to himself, and kept his descriptions of his living situation as vague as he could. He rebuffed their continuous offers to come and live with them, valuing his independence over a safer environment, a notion he held onto strongly since his first days in the UK.
“He wanted to have his own privacy and his own house and he wanted to look out for himself,” Moores said. “He just wanted to stand up on his feet, he didn't want help from anyone.”
It was in this hostel that he was horribly assaulted. Boiling water was thrown on him in an act of intimidation. In another incident, he was physically assaulted and jumped out of a window to escape, breaking his leg in the process. His attackers served prison time, but when he was rehoused, they came looking for him and set his flat on fire. After this attack, the Bristol City Council moved Bijan to his last address, Capgrave Crescent in Brislington in 2007, a city council-owned and managed property.
Though he had received a new address, his troubles did not subside. His eldest sister, who did not want to be named, witnessed the residents of the council housing block he shared call him a “Paki,” foreigner and “cockroach.” Children and adults often told him to go back to where he had come from
Bijan was scared.
“He reached a point where he didn’t even feel comfortable to go shopping with me,” she said of the weekly shopping trips she helped with him because of his disability. The incidents caused him to slip further into severe depression.
His sisters knew something was wrong, but Bijan did not want to feel pitied, or worry others, so he never shared specific details of the darkest parts of his new life. “Bijan didn’t want to bring his problems to us, because he thought: everybody’s got enough on their plate,” Moores said.
“But he was so worried,” his other sister said. “I could see it. “He was so worried to death, even in [Capgrave Crescent],far away from the other place. He was always looking over his shoulder.”
One place he did seek help from was Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI). His case file there spans years of incidents for which he came to the anti-hate charity to get help. “Bijan had been with us purely on the basis of suffering,” said Batook Pandya, SARI’s director until his own death in February 2014. “He was suffering racism at that time.”
Alex Raikes, assistant director at SARI, said that while South Bristol was rife with racially motivated crime, the specific area in which Ebrahimi lived had not been particularly a cause for concern in the past. “This is not one of our worst areas, but it is an area where racism happens and there aren't many Black and Minority Ethnic families.”
SARI proved to be essential when the Bristol City Council took out an injunction, or restraining order, against Ebrahimi after residents accused him of threatening people with a metal bar.
In reality, Ebrahimi was tapping the metal banister near his apartment in an attempt to call his cat, which would escape underneath the stairs to the second floor, back home. “When we heard that we said, hold on, no he didn’t threaten anybody. All he was trying to do was trying to get his cat out,” Pandya said.
But since that incident, Ebrahimi had not been to see SARI in two years. “We think he was very low,” Raikes said. “If he had come for help, we might have been in a position to deescalate the situation.”
Ebrahimi was in the process of trying to relocate to a new apartment when he was killed. After years of abuse from neighbors, he had also decided to begin documenting the behavior he witnessed to protect himself. Not keen on confrontation, he always called police to deal with incidents, but knew the documentation, hard evidence, would help at a time when felt abandoned by authorities In fact, it had once before. In a separate, unrelated incident according to Pandya and Raikes, Ebrahimi was accused of sexually assaulting a woman. A neighbor on the estate who had been continuously hurling racist abuse at Ebrahimi threatened to go to the police with unfounded sexual assault allegations if he complained to authorities. When police showed up to question Ebrahimi, he revealed that he had taped the woman as she made her threats. No charges were ever filed.
But it was the July 2013 recording that played a big role in the events that transgressed that night and eventually led to accusations of pedophilia.
Lee James, 24, had moved in with his partner and their three young girls nine months before the murder. Born and raised in Bristol, he had recently started employment putting cladding on buildings after a three-year bout without work.
The events that unfolded that summer at Capgrave Crescent were not his first encounter with the law, however. In 2011, he was convicted of battery of his partner Charlene Husher, for which he received a Community Order. According to court records, Husher knew James had a temper and said he was intermittently violent with her.
“We have had extreme rows before and he is always sorry afterwards,” she wrote in her witness statement. “He has hit me on occasion. The last time he hit me was a couple of months ago at the flat. He lost his temper with me and punched me to the face.” Husher did not respond to a message seeking comment on the case.
A telling detail however, which might explain James’ rush to spread wildly damaging rumors about Ebrahimi being a sexual predator is revealed in court documents:
James had a child from a previous relationship who was sexually abused while in the custody of his ex-partner. That child was taken into foster care and though James had initially hoped to take charge of the child himself, it became clear he would be unable to handle the challenge on his own. The child was eventually adopted.
The 72 crucial hours before Ebrahimi’s death demonstrate how severe harassment, racism and unfounded rumors, which authorities failed to quell, normalized the murder of an innocent man.
On July 11, many of the residents of Capgrave Crescent flats were enjoying a rare spell of very hot weather. Barbecues were on in full force, children were running around and many residents had come out to sit on their balconies and enjoy the view. At some point during the afternoon, the gathering, helped along by alcohol, turned boisterous. James was drinking in front of his young children — something Ebrahimi felt he should not have been doing. After being on the receiving end of harassment from his neighbors for so long and feeling let down by authorities who he felt weren't taking his complaints seriously, he decided to start gathering evidence to strengthen his case by filming what he perceived to be James' anti-social behavior.
James mistakenly thought he was filming his children, and barged into Ebrahimi’s apartment, beer in hand, to confront him. A video of the incident, which Ebrahimi continued to film, was leaked. “Go out of my house,” Ebrahimi can be heard telling James. James tells Ebrahimi that if he continues to take pictures, he will “fuck him up” and is seen being pulled away by his partner. Ebrahimi can be heard breathing rapidly in the last few seconds of the video. He knew, it seems, that they were not exactly empty threats.
This is part Three of a five-part series.