Is what happened to Bijan Ebrahimi an isolated case or does it signal a wider “streak of intolerance” in British society? In the third instalment of IranWire’s series, Liana Aghajanian continues her story of the Iranian national murdered in Bristol in July 2013.
Read Murder in Bristol, part one.
Murder in Bristol, part two.
Murder in Bristol, part three.
On July 11, many of the residents of Capgrave Crescent 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. Bijan Ebrahimi’s neighbor Lee 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.
Neighbors tried to calm James down but to no avail. A neighbor’s statement in court records remembers him saying, “I’m going to burn his house down.”
James soon left to fetch a police officer. Ebrahimi had also phoned for help himself. When officers arrived on the scene, they told Ebrahimi that drinking and making a mess was not an offence, advising him to discontinue filming.
James, who was seething with anger, threatened to deal with the issue himself.
“At least they’ll know the length their Dad went to protect his kids,” he told them. “If they ask me why I’m inside I will tell them I did it for them and they will be really proud of me.”
Officers advised him against this, but when they briefly returned to the police station, they learnt of the history of neighborhood disputes between Ebrahimi and his neighbors.
According to court documents, neighbors witnessed James “pointing aggressively at Mr. Ebrahimi, shouting 'pedo.'” Another neighbor heard him say, “I'm going to fucking kill you.”
Another witness is quoted as saying that the entire crowd was out of control. “It was like they were a posse of a vigilante group or a witch hunt.”
Then, something curious happened. Officers made the decision to arrest Ebrahimi. It was for his own safety, they said at the time, but what it actually did was reinforce the notion that the crowd, or mob as they later came to be known, was right in its premonitions.
Arresting him was essentially a symbolic nod, a confirmation to the mob that what they thought all along had been true. Why arrest a man who had done nothing wrong? Ebrahimi must have been culpable. He was led away by police as neighbors cheered, shouting “pedo.”
Officers reviewed the footage Ebrahimi had taken and confirmed no offence had been committed. They released him the next morning, after an officer went back to Capgrave Crescent to investigate the matter again. Neighbors were said to be unreasonable and James wasn't there. The officers advised neighbors “as to the dangers of ill-informed gossip.”
The police offered to take him to his sister's house instead, but he insisted on returning home, right back into a complex where rumor and anger were festering into one big deadly combination.
On July 13, the courtyard had come alive again, as children and parents enjoyed another day of hot weather in Bristol. The afternoon progressed to evening, during which Ebrahimi's neighbors realized he was back home.
James, Charlene Husher and Stephen Norley with his partner stood outside Ebrahimi’s flat that night, drinking alcohol, continuing their accusations and taunts loudly enough so that Ebrahimi would hear. They discussed their disdain for him and how much they mistrusted him. At one point, James stood directly outside Ebrahimi's flat and according to a witness, “pulled down his grey tracksuit trousers and wiggled his bottom with no pants on towards Ben's house.”
Ebrahimi contacted police, explicitly telling them he felt threatened and unsafe. Messages were left for the police beat manager of the area, but there was no response. He also called one of his best friends, who had recently moved to London. “He was the one who Bijan called and his phone was down, probably in the last hours of his life,” Moores said. “He found out that he had so many missed calls from him.”
After midnight, he sent his last communication with police, an email, in which he told them he was afraid.
But the next time police came to Capgrave Crescent , it was to respond to the scene of Ebrahimi’s burning body.
How can such a shocking crime take place in modern Britain?
Bijan’s family found out about his death three days later as they were returning from their family holiday in Spain. On July 17, as they made their way through passport control, officers stopped them and led them to a back room.
At first, the Ebrahimi sisters could only chalk it up to immigration officials thinking they had dodgy passports. That all changed when officials informed them that two police officers from the Avon and Somerset department were coming to meet with them.
Forty minutes after their arrival back home, they learned of their brother’s death. Disoriented and devastated, it took them hours to find their car in the airport’s car park. Getting back home was the most difficult journey of their lives. The older sister passed out for hours. “Those two hours, it was like two years for us. It was such a horrendous journey coming back from the airport,” Moores said.
Authorities held on to Ebrahimi’s body for four weeks for post mortem investigations, taking away the Ebrahimi family’s rights to give their brother a Muslim burial, for which tradition stipulates the body be buried as soon as possible after death. “To us,” Moores wrote in her victim impact statement, “this felt like Bijan being murdered twice.”
Eight months after the murder, Moores told me how deeply not being able to say goodbye properly had affected her. Unable to see him in death, she questioned if it really had been her brother that she buried.
“Every time my phone rings at a certain time of night, or if the doorbell goes and I'm not expecting someone, suddenly a thought will come to me – Is it Bijan? All the logic is telling me that it was him [we buried], but something inside of me says, 'maybe it wasn't.’”
As the IPCC investigation attempts to unravel the severe failings surrounding Bijan’s death, his family, family, friends and the wider Bristol community have been trying to reconcile answers to one central question: how can such a shocking, preventable crime take place in modern Britain?
Is the growing far right, anti-immigrant rhetoric, spurred on by groups such as the British National Party and the English Defense League partially to blame, egging on an “us and them” mentality? Was Ebrahimi made a scapegoat for the pressure and woes of the economic crisis? Is it socioeconomically deprived council estates across Britain that breed intolerance, or is it that they feel so disenfranchised in their own communities by law enforcement that they feel no choice but to take law into their own hands? Or could it be hysteria about pedophilia consistently plastered across news reports that has birthed a new legion of vigilantes?
In the last decade, a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment has grown across the UK, and to a larger extent, Europe. According to a report released by Faith Matters, a non-profit organization that works to reduce extremism and increase interfaith dialogue, there has been a shift towards “cultural racism”. This racism plays on the same “kinds of populist phobias, casual discrimination and demonization as anti-Semitism did a century ago,” reads the report.
In the 1970s, Britain saw the rise of the fascist National Front during which black and Indian immigrants who had emigrated to make up the country's labor shortage were targeted as employment and housing resources were squeezed.
Those targets, operating under the strong guise of British patriotism, shifted to Muslims and Middle Easterners in the wake of 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, Teeside University researchers found that since 9/11, half of the country's mosques and Islamic centers had been attacked – an astounding 700 in 12 years.
After the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in broad daylight by two Nigerian Muslim converts who were avenging the deaths of Muslims killed by British forces, the number of anti-Muslim attacks on people and places of worships soared. Metropolitan Police figures numbered 500 Islamophobic crimes alone in 2013.
“I think there's been a kind of strong streak of intolerance within British society, I think in the last decade or so migrants and Muslims have been the target of that racism,” says Ben Gidley, a senior researcher at the Center on Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford. “There's a huge amount of violence in general and towards Muslims in particular – or people perceived as Muslims. It's a depressing number of cases.”
Now instead of the National Front, the message is being sent through the likes of The English Defense League or EDL, the Islamophobic street movement that organizes protests through networks of former football hooligans, often targeting mosques and violently clashing with police in city centers. The EDL has divisions across several UK cities, including Bristol.
The fear and xenophobia has been furthered stoked by the far-right, anti-Islamic British National Party and, some argue, the more mainstream UK Independence Party (UKIP), which pushes a hefty anti-immigration line. The eradication of Muslims from Britain, perceived to be terror and security threats, are directly or indirectly supported by these groups, who play on negative views from both the media and the anti-Islamic view points and attitudes of politicians.
As we sat at the offices of Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI) offices in Bristol, I asked asked its director, Batook Pandya, about the anti-Muslim sentiments that have presented themselves in recent years.
“When times are a bit hard, and unemployment is high, this is when racism raises its head,” he said. “People like to blame new communities that have come in.”
SARI's 2012 annual report says that 40 percent of total victims they helped were Muslim clients that had been highly targeted, “echoing the rise in Islamophobia.”
The degree of abuse Bijan suffered throughout his years as a refugee was extreme. For the most part, British society has become much more ethnically diverse and integrated. National Census numbers released in December 2012 reflect this: England’s white population has decreased, while other ethnic groups have increased. A World Values Survey from last year that asked respondents in more than 80 countries their opinions on what kind of neighbors they’d prefer not to have found that the British were among the most tolerant of communities when it comes to acceptance of diversity.
But there have always been pockets where being different quickly escalates into hate crime. Often they are high needs areas like council estates where waiting list numbers are into the millions. When people have to fight for resources like housing, it can drive resentment that's easily racialized.
“It's a good issue to capitalize on,” Gidley said. “That's probably been a factor in local tensions all over the country.”
A Complicated History
The port city of Bristol has a population close to 500,000. It’s the home of international street artist Banksy and popular musicians like Portishead and Massive Attack. It is a city famous for embracing alternative and independent scenes as well as diverse cultures — it has a large Somali community numbering around 10,000, and an internet radio station called Radio Salaam Shalom that serves the Jewish and Muslim communities of the city. Bristol is now home to at least 45 religions and at least 50 birth countries are represented. There are around 91 main languages spoken by people living in the city, according to population report released last summer. Its current Lord Mayor, Faruk Choudhury is Muslim — the city’s first — has previously called Bristol the best city in Britain because of its multi-cultural communities.
But its history is complicated. Bristol’s development in the 18th century was built on the backs of slaves: the city was a stop for wealthy merchants who took slaves to the Americas in what is known as the “Triangle Slave Trade.”
Bristol’s St. Paul’s Riots, a confrontation between black and white residents amid growing racial tension and poverty in 1980, made national headlines.
Farooq Siddique, who writes the “A Muslim in Bristol” column for the Bristol Post and is part of the Bristol Muslim Society, was born and raised in the city. He says Bristol is a diverse city and by and large, a tolerant one, and though he was never made conscious of his faith, he definitely knew he stood out because of his Pakistani background.
“In the old days, it was the color of your skin – it didn't matter if you were black or brown or Asian, it was if you were not white, that's what made you different.”
But feeling different never made a massive impact on who he was or what he could do in Bristol — a city he's proud of, but one that is not immune to Islamophobia.
“I would like to think so far [the case of Ebrahimi] is isolated, but having said that, I think you're probably going to see more, sadly, unless something changes dramatically. There seems to be an accepted open season on Islam.”
This is part Four of a five-part series.