The British establishment prides itself on its decency and its ability to stand up to dictatorships and injustice abroad.
But beneath the talk of the rule of law and “British values” lies a dark underbelly of racism, corruption and cover-ups.
The message is that if you are poor, black, Irish or Muslim, you can be imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit—or end up dead. And the only way to get to the truth is to fight for it.
Earlier this month, a meeting organised by the RMT transport workers’ union gave voice to several generations of people whose lives have been turned upside down by the British state’s inhuman treatment.
Among those speaking were Janet Alder, whose brother Christopher Alder died in Kingston upon Hull police station in 1998, and Samantha Rigg-David, whose brother Sean Rigg died in Brixton police station, south London, in 2008.
They were joined by two Irish men wrongly convicted of Republican bomb attacks in the 1970s—Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four.
Over 300 people have died in police custody over the past decade. They include Demetre Fraser and Kingsley Burrell-Brown who died over the past year, and reggae artist Smiley Culture, who died a year ago last week. No police officers have been brought to account for the deaths.
The lesson of all these cases is that the British state is not impartial—it is a tool of oppression. But importantly campaigning for justice can make a difference.
One night in 1998, Christopher was injured in a nightclub fight in Hull. He was taken to hospital but later discharged.
Police then arrested him, saying he had become aggressive, and took him to the local police station. He lay dying on the floor in a pool of blood. CCTV footage appears to show officers making monkey noises at him as he dies.
Fourteen years of cover-ups followed. Last year, it was discovered that Christopher’s body was still in the mortuary. The body released to his family for burial was that of a 77 year old woman.
His sister Janet said, “Christopher came out of the army after five years, a decorated paratrooper. One night in 1998 Christopher went to a nightclub. There was a bit of a fracas.
“As he stepped outside there was a crowd. He was punched and fell to the floor. But that’s no more than what happens on a Saturday night in towns and cities around Britain.”
Janet went on to talk about how the police treated Christopher at the hospital.
“They started pulling him about the place. Hospital staff said they saw him dragged out with his feet dragging.”
She said that when he got to the police station, “Christopher died on the floor. It was two years before they let us see videos of him on the floor.
“I thought we were going to get justice. We fought tooth and nail. My brother was gasping for his life.
“If this had been one of us this would have been the type of evidence used to convict us.” But it wasn’t. “It was because they were police officers.”
Samantha Rigg-David has fought to bring those responsible for her brother Sean Rigg’s death to justice since he died in August 2008, while in the custody of Brixton police. An inquiry into Sean’s death is expected to begin in June.
Samantha said, “Janet Alder gave me lots of strength. She’s been fighting 14 years, we’ve only been fighting three and a half.
“There we were, in the middle of the night, with the shocking news our brother had died in police custody.
“I said to the police officer, I’ll have to identify him won’t I? They said, you can’t see him, he’s been sealed off in a body bag.
“They said they would drip feed us information, but they never did. Since then we’ve had to become investigators.”
The first challenge for the Rigg family was to even see Sean’s body to identify him. “We fought tooth and nail to see him,” said Samantha.
“The IPCC was conducting an investigation into my brother’s death. But we were the people fighting for answers.
“When they took him out of the van, to all intents and purposes he was dying. We know mental health doesn’t kill people, but restraint does. We want our day in court.”
The Guildford Four, including Gerry, were released in 1989 after 15 years in prison. They were wrongly convicted of the IRA Guildford pub bombings in 1974, which killed four soldiers and a civilian, and injured 65. The four were released on appeal after the police were found to have lied.
Gerry Conlon started by telling the meeting about the state’s targeting of Irish people in the 1970s.
But, he said, “When Margaret Thatcher came in she targeted working class and blacks. Today Muslims are the new Irish.”
He hit out at the hypocrisy of British government “humanitarian intervention” saying it was a cover for human rights abuses. He said, “They’re doing it here and the police are getting away with it.
“Janet Alder’s brother is one of many dead in police stations. Christopher Alder was arrested healthy and came out in a coffin.
“We are paying tax money for a bent police force and bent politicians. I was arrested in my bed. I was taken and tortured.
“My father went to the police station and they arrested him. He got 12 years in prison and died after six. He was suffering from emphysema and septicemia. All they gave him was Benylin. This is what we used to complain about happening in Russia.
“These meetings are so important. Our only strength is our solidarity. We always think that these things happen to someone else. I became that someone else.”
Paddy Hill was wrongly imprisoned in 1975 for the previous year’s IRA pub bombings in Birmingham, which killed 21 people and injured 182.
After a failed application to appeal in 1976 and a defeated appeal in 1988, a further appeal in 1991 saw Paddy and his co-defendants released after an international campaign.
Paddy suffers from severe mental health problems as a result of his ordeal—but has yet to receive help from the state for his condition. “We’ve been fighting nearly 20 years to get the truth,” he told the meeting.
He said the police “are rotten from top to bottom”, and that the Independent Police Complaints Commission were part of the cover-up operation.
“I’ve never been interviewed about the bombs. They always said we know you didn’t do the bombs. But my sentence was 23 consecutive life sentences.
“The only way you’ll get justice in this country is by fighting and fighting and fighting. I get very angry and I think I’ve got the right to be angry.
Paddy condemned the government’s “audacity” in talking about human rights in Libya. He said “not one miscarriage of justice victim has got any help” from the state. That’s because we are victims of the state.”