In early December, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announced that four police officers who dealt with events leading up to the death of Iranian national Bijan Ebrahimi were guilty of wrongdoing and negligence. After waiting for more than a year, Ebrahimi’s family have expressed relief at the news that Police Constables Kevin Duffy, Helen Harris and Leanne Winter and Police Community Support Officer Andrew Passmore will face trial on charges of misconduct.
When Iranian national Bijan Ebrahimi was murdered in Bristol in July 2013, IranWire commissioned Liana Aghajanian to cover the case. Her article is the product of weeks of in-depth reportage, with insights from dozens of interviews spanning Ebrahimi’s family, Bristol hate crime activists, local officials and academics in a quest to understand the complex array of factors that ultimately led to his death. This is the last article in the series.
With additional reporting from Giles Crosse.
Today, Bristol’s geography is fragmented, and the estate where Bijan Ebrahimi lived is located on the outskirts of the city, an area without any real center that most never venture into.
“You've got certain areas in Bristol which your ethnicity mattered quite a bit, the color of your skin mattered — and it still does,” said Batook Pandya, who was director of Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI) in Bristol until his death in February 2014. In 1999, Pandya was himself subject to a attack in the Bristol council ward of Easton — beaten up in front of his family by two skinheads in a car park.
Lee James’ police testimony about Ebrahimi perfectly summed up the sentiment. “He just looked like a wrong person,” he told police. “It is the way he looked.”
A 2006 an intercultural city study initiated by Comedia, an urban planning and culture-focused organization concerned with the future of cities, sought to explore how “open” a city Bristol was. The results of the study, which was drafted in collaboration with the Bristol cultural development partnership, were mixed. While the city attracted open minded people, that somehow did not translate into making it a a more “open” city.
“This is a contradictory element of the Bristol culture,” the report concluded. “A place which wants and needs outsiders to innovate and can support them doing that but still wants to maintain a separateness and distance from them.”
Crime numbers in Bristol have dropped to record lows, but there are pockets of high social needs areas that remain. One resident of Brislington I spoke to, who wanted to remain anonymous, called the area where Ebrahimi lived a “sinkhole estate,” which politicians never really pay attention to unless it is voting time.
A 2009 BBC Panorama program demonstrated the alarming state of Bristol’s council ward areas. Two undercover Asian reporters who posed as husband and wife in Bristol’s Southmead estate were subject to horrendous abuse not unlike what Ebrahimi experienced. The pair had rocks and bottles thrown at them, and were called obscenities, including racially derogatory names like “Paki.” One of the two reporters, Amil Khan, was punched in the head before being told not to walk on the pavement. When the program was aired, Bristol police said it was not a fair representation of daily life in the area. However, Muslim residents thought otherwise, with one woman reporting that incidents described in the program had also happened to her.
But, says, Bridget Anderson, professor of Migration and Citizenship at Oxford University’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society, an area's working class background is not necessarily correlated to a low occurrence of diversity. “There's far more integration among working class people than there is with middle class people, far more sharing of resources, far more intermarriage, rubbing up against one another,” she said.
Peter Main, the former Lord Mayor of Bristol and the first openly gay politician to serve in that post, says the city is welcoming and that media reports are misleading. As for what happened to Ebrahimi: “I think for me, it’s an isolated incident in a one-off council estate,” he said. “That’s not to be an apologist. I don't want Bristol to be judged by that one incident because that is totally atypical of the city.”
SARI's Raikes echoed the sentiment. “If anything, the city of Bristol is probably an area where you’re more likely to have hate crime recognized, you’re more likely to have it taken seriously.”
Bristol City Council's press office said much the same: “The council and the police have been engaging with local people, many of whom have been understandably distressed. They know that this is an exceptional crime that is completely out of character with their neighborhood and with Bristol as a whole.”
Kerry McCarthy, a British Labour Party politician who represents Bristol East in parliament, along with two local councillors, has gone out to communicate with residents in the area, but admits to finding it challenging. “In those particular two blocs, the level of disengagement and disillusion with politicians is ‘nobody can do anything for us.’”
It is a point that social psychologist Dr. John Drury from the University of Sussex in Brighton touched upon in a blog post paralleling the community involved in Ebrahimi’s death with the “anti-pedophile” crowd events in Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, 14 years ago. “These locals ignored this police information not out of stupidity or mindlessness at all but because they simply didn't trust the police,” he wrote. “They believed, on the basis of past experiences, that the police sided with pedophiles and others and against ‘the local community.’”
Though our visits to Brislington suggested otherwise, Mike Wollacott, Labour Councillor for Brislington East, says Brislington has a strong sense of community. "The murder of Mr Ebrahimi last summer hit the headlines, with the great and the good passing judgment on the people of Brislington. One can only imagine the pain and suffering that his family, and the local community have been through in the past year.” He agreed it was not helpful that the inquiry into the police handling of the case had taken so long. “This does delay the community moving on from this tragic event”, he said.
“The community want to move on from this horrific incident, but, continued speculation casts a long shadow over the area. It has all the same social problems that are familiar in many communities: lack of social housing, the poor state of existing social housing, concerns over new residents and worries over drug use, and anti-social behavior. Long-standing council tenants see their environment deteriorate with very little opportunity to address the underlying issues that arise. This compounds the stress and anxiety experienced by the community.”
Wollacott says he hopes the community will learn from the findings of the IPCC investigation. But, he says, the problems in Brislington are not unique, and what is needed are further resources to address tensions in the area.
“The attempts to demonize the area by some elements of the press has caused great anxiety locally, in a community who want to move on from these tragic events."
Wollacott’s comments suggest a certain hostility to the press, echoed by Bristol’s mayor, George Ferguson:
“The council and police have been engaging with local people, many of whom have been understandably distressed. They know that this is an exceptional crime that is completely out of character with their neighborhood and with Bristol as a whole. The Safer Bristol Partnership is currently reviewing the case and any contact the authorities had with Mr Ebrahimi.”
Though IranWire approached Conservative Brislington councillor Mike Langley, hoping to talk to him about the Ebrahimi case, he did not return emails and his office refused to supply alternative contact details for him. We also approached Brislington Community Partnership (BCP), a “strategic partnership of the two Brislington wards consisting of Councillors, residents and key local agencies that works to improve the quality of life for residents in the neighborhood,’ but they also refused to comment, stating that "Unfortunately no one at the BCP feels in a position to offer a community opinion on the matter.”
Ebrahimi: The Right to Be Heard
Generally speaking, single victims of racism generally put up with this abuse and eventually move away — giving the “local community” what it wants. “When you've got a single victim of racism on their own in a wider neighborhood, they normally go into their houses, put up with the abuse, hide away and move. they normally don't fight, they don’t stand up,” Raikes said.
But Ebrahimi was tenacious about standing up for his rights despite the push back from his intolerant community. “He believed he had the right to be heard, to a peaceful home, to enjoy his flowers, he had a right to be different — he couldn't comprehend why the system was letting him down so badly.”
Perhaps, for the system, Ebrahimi had become a nuisance whose complaints they overlooked. “Every time these people reported Bijan, [the Bristol City Council] was ready to take action. Was it racism on the part of the institutions? Yes,” Pandya said. “They thought Bijan had become a pain the backside. They really didn’t want to deal with him.”
Pandya, who tirelessly championed Ebrahimi's cause and sought to put an end to prejudice in Bristol, died in February 2014 at the age of 67. Police commissioners, members of parliament and regular residents all came together to remember the man whose work in race relations had earned him an MBE. Bristol had lost another one of its own – dealt another blow as it attempted to heal and learn from the murder at Capgrave Crescent.
“There are so many inequalities in this world,” Pandya had said to me. “Sometimes when I think it will depress me, I say, 'Hold on, I want to get to some mountain and sit down and forget the human race,’ but on the other side you've got a lot of of good human beings and people who do wonderful things, so we move forward.”
In Malvern, a spa town located in Worcestershire some 68 miles from Bristol known for its spring water and inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, a neighbor is asking Moores how she is. You were very brave, the neighbor tells her, as they stand between the cars separating their houses on a quiet, cul-de-sac.
Weeks before, Moores had stood up outside James and Norley’s trial, with her lawyer on one side and Pandya on the other, and read a statement on behalf of her family about her brother.
In her home, her other sister is dressed in black, still mourning the loss of her brother. In between sips of Persian tea and pastries they tell me about how their family will never be the same again. After living in England for over 20 years, the two sisters never particularly experienced strong sentiments of racism from neighbors, co-workers or friends. In fact, they were very integrated within the community.
“We were deeply involved in relations with English people,” his older sister tells me, adding that she does not really like separating her friends and network by ethnic or national background. “We felt ourself a part of that and it was the same. We accepted them. We never tried to put them in a different column and put our names separately.”
Moores said her brother, easily identified as a refugee and living on his own, was an easy target to pick on.
Now, they feel, something has changed. Because of their brother’s fate, they’re more wary, more sensitive of how they’re perceived in a country they call home, despite the fact that neither have experienced any particular incidents that made them feel like they did not belong.
“People's views towards not just refugees, but even immigrants, have changed a lot and I personally, fortunately, haven't had any experiences myself, but you hear so many stories from new immigrants,” Moores said.
A few times a week, they drive to Brislington, sit in their car and cry. It is their way of connecting with Ebrahimi, with some kind of tangible, physical presence that is still around, a way to compensate for never being able to properly say goodbye. His older sister’s last visit to Ebrahimi’s flat was especially difficult. The wire sheet on the window had been removed and new curtains installed. It seemed, she reported back to Moores, that the flat had been rented out to someone else. Upset and disappointed, Ebrahimi’s sisters could not give him the proper Muslim burial they had hoped to. Four weeks after his death, when the coroner released his body, they held a funeral with family members who had flown in from Iran and buried him in a Bristol cemetery.
“It wasn’t just one murder,” Moores said. “It was our life being taken away with him as well. The effect has gotten so deep in our lives that no one can imagine.”
And she knows it is not just her family that has been deeply broken apart by Ebrahimi’s death.
“Those people, their families, those people who have somehow contributed,” she says, trailing off. “Even those police officers who didn’t act at the right time, their families, society. It’s not just us who has been let down. But everyone.”
The Ebrahimi sisters are determined to make sure Bijan Ebrahimi, whose first name translates as “hero” in Farsi, did not die in vain. They know this is bigger, more far-reaching than just their family. They know their needs to be lessons learned by an entire community if it seeks to grow beyond the false condemnation of a man who asked for help and did not get it.
We lost Bijan, his older sister tells me. But we’re feeling proud too. We are the ones who are getting this reward, to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone ever again. “Bijan has been sacrificed. In some ways it’s like a gift, like a wake-up call.”
That evening as we talked, a trio of flower pots sat behind me on a windowsill overlooking the street. When his sister visited his flat for the last time to gather his things, they found 25 kilos of books and his flowers — the two things that kept Ebrahimi going through the constant torment he experienced.
His sisters collected them, the only living memories they have of their brother.
This is part Five of a five-part series.