Jimmy Mubenga’s inquest has shed light on the murky world of the privatised deportation business
A protest against the treatment of Jimmy Mubenga outside the Home Office in London. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
The inquest into the death of Jimmy Mubenga uncovered a shocking story of a cruel deportation system, of racism and inhumanity, and of a state seemingly unwilling to prosecute those who abuse and misuse their powers. The verdict of unlawful killing is an honest reflection of the evidence heard.
Mubenga died on 12 October 2010 on a British Airways flight bound for Angola, the country of his birth. He was being deported after being convicted of involvement in a pub fight, his first and only offence. He had been in the UK since 1994, and left behind a wife and five children, all of whom were born in the UK and are now British citizens. A committed family man, he was a regular at the school gates for the children.
Mubenga died a terrifying death while being restrained by three G4S guards in his aeroplane seat, belted and handcuffed behind his back. The restraint up to 40 minutes; this took place in front of passengers and BA crew, but no one intervened or gave first aid. That was left to the London Ambulance Service, who valiantly tried to save his life but by the time they arrived it was too late.
The investigation into his death was bungled from the outset. The guards were taken to Heathrow police station where senior G4S management, including a former Metropolitan chief superintendent, attended. The guards were not questioned but released and taken to a hotel where in the same room, and with senior management present, they wrote up their accounts. These claimed Mubenga had forced himself forward in his seat, causing his own death.
A different story came to light in the Guardian days later. Passengers described Mubenga being forced face forward in his seat by the guards, shouting that he couldn’t breathe, that he was being killed and pleading for help. Pathologists gave evidence that his death was caused by restraint and that you couldn’t “restrain yourself to death”. The matter was passed to the homicide squad. The guards were arrested and on two of their phones extreme racist texts were found. After almost two years the Crown Prosecution Service decided, inexplicably to the family, not to bring charges – the latest in a series of failures to prosecute over deaths in state custody.
At the inquest the reality of the murky private removals industry emerged, where deportations are a business for profit with multimillion-pound contracts. G4S was paid by the hour, and if a deportation failed profits were hit. The guards’ wages were dependent on the hours worked. It was important to “get the job away” and they were given incentives for successful removals.
Deportations could fail if the deportee made too much of a commotion and the pilot asked the guards to get off the plane. So a technique called “carpet karaoke” was developed by guards to silence deportees. They would push a seated and belted deportee forward so that would “sing to the carpet” and their shouts, screams and cries would be muffled. It is a potentially lethal, and illegal, technique as it affects the ability to breathe and was explicitly banned by G4S. The restraint described by passengers pointed to this banned technique, with Mubenga forced forward by guards while in his seat, his voice appearing to be projected downwards and gradually becoming quieter.
G4S no longer has the contract for overseas escorting – though escorts and senior managers remain the same. Before Mubenga’s death, there had already been allegations of ill-treatment, racism, and excessive and dangerous use of force by private security contractors during forced removals. The Home Office is responsible for supervision and oversight of the contracts, so it has questions to answer. There are also concerns arising from the relationship between the state and private companies, with senior employees retiring from one to reappear in the other.
A death such as Jimmy Mubenga’s was waiting to happen. A man died in a public space while all around him people did nothing. Will the response to this inquest bring any change?
Deborah Coles and Mark Scott
The Guardian, Tuesday 9 July 2013 16.05 BST
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