Bijan Ebrahimi was kicked unconscious, doused in white spirit and then set alight by 24-year-old Lee James, Bristol Crown Court heard this week.
Ebrahimi, who lived in a council flat in Brislington, on the edge of Bristol, and is believed to have had learning difficulties and a physical impairment, had been the victim of false rumours that he was a paedophile, which it appears was part of a continuing campaign of harassment.
Evidence also emerged this week that Ebrahimi had been failed by local agencies – including the police – in the months leading up to his death in July.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is investigating the way the case was handled by Avon and Somerset police, while Bristol City Council has launched a serious case review.
Mike Smith, who led the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) disability-related harassment inquiry and its subsequent report, Hidden in Plain Sight, said that – although the whole picture was not yet clear – it appeared that “yet again there have been multi-agency failings”.
He said: “I hope the serious case review and the IPCC investigation are thorough and uncover the truth of what has happened to him.”
Smith, who chaired the EHRC’s disability committee until last year, told Disability News Service (DNS): “It would be interesting to know if lead officers in the relevant organisations have even read Hidden in Plain Sight, because on the face of it, these are the same kinds of mistakes that we reported on previously.”
He added: “How many more unnecessary deaths need to happen before these agencies take this issue seriously and properly implement the recommendations in my report?”
Smith warned when Hidden in Plain Sight was published in 2011 that disability-related harassment was “a whole society problem” and that public bodies like local authorities and police forces had been guilty of “a systemic institutional failure to recognise the problem in the first place and tackle it”.
Lord [Chris] Holmes, the EHRC’s current disability commissioner, also spoke of his horror at hearing of the Ebrahimi murder.
He said: “It is absolutely not just for politicians, it is not just for commissioners, it is for every single individual across the country to be utterly concerned and appalled that that can happen in 21st century Britain.”
He said the commission had ensured that follow-up reports on Hidden in Plain Sight would be produced after one year , three years and five years, so that it “does in no sense grow dusty on the shelves”.
Andrew Lee, director of People First Self Advocacy, said he too was horrified by the details of Ebrahimi’s death.
He said: “It makes my stomach turn. If all of these crimes were against children and not people with learning difficulties, society would be screaming and shouting for blood, but because they are people with learning difficulties we don’t actually hear a peep squeak.
“I think there is a society problem in accepting that crime is being committed against disabled people.”
He said that whenever there was a similar death, there was a subsequent serious case review and “lots of recommendations, but nothing actually changes”.
He suggested a media campaign highlighting the many disabled people who have died in similar circumstances, “sticking it in front of the public and saying: ‘Is this acceptable?'”.
Lee added: “Even if people with learning difficulties actually tell somebody, they are not taken seriously, so there is a society attitudinal problem.
“It is like everybody else has access to the justice system but disabled people, and specifically people with learning difficulties. There isn’t a justice system for them.”
Julie Newman, acting chair of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said the murders reflected society’s troubling attitude towards disabled people.
She said there was no respect for disabled people’s contributions to their community because of the “sustained negative public imagery” about disability benefit claimants that appears in some newspapers.
Newman said: “I think there is a real increased public disrespect for disabled people collectively and individually. I think we live in very dangerous times and unfortunately it is not getting any better.
“People feel oppressed and they have nothing to lose, they go wild, and society has given them permission to behave appallingly towards us. it’s terrible.”
She said Ebrahimi’s death demonstrated that “the day-to-day lives of disabled people have not significantly changed”, despite the optimism that followed the London 2012 Paralympics.
She said: “There is no great social benefit to us. There is certainly not a welfare benefit to us. The fact that there is such a readiness to target us, that has not changed.”
James has admitted a charge of murder, while his accomplice, Stephen Norley, 24, also from Capgrave Crescent, Brislington, has admitted assisting an offender. Both will be sentenced next month.
31 October 2013