They say the murder of Bijan Ebrahimi in Bristol has similarities with some of the most shocking disability hate crime killings of recent years, and want to see a stricter sentence.
The coordinators of the user-led Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) are appalled that neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) treated the murder as a hate crime.
If they had done so, CPS could have asked for a far stricter sentence from the judge – a minimum of 30 years, under new hate crime laws brought in only this year.
Members of the network also believe there are signs in the case of the same kind of multi-agency failings that led to the deaths of some of the most high-profile disability hate crime victims, such as Francecca Pilkington, David Askew and Steven Hoskin.
Ebrahimi was beaten and kicked to death, and his body then set alight, by 24-year-old Lee James, who lived just a few doors away from him in Capgrave Crescent, Brislington, on the edge of Bristol.
James was sentenced today (Thursday) to life in prison, and must serve at least 18 years. He had pleaded guilty to murder earlier this month. Steven Norley, his accomplice, was jailed for four years after pleading guilty to assisting an offender.
Days before he was murdered, Ebrahimi had been harassed by a mob outside the council flat where he lived alone with his cat, following false rumours that he was a paedophile.
The rumours had started because he had been taking pictures of youngsters who he thought had been vandalising his prized hanging baskets.
Police arrested Ebrahimi, who was Iranian, on 11 July after neighbours complained about him taking the photographs.
Officers had arrived to find a crowd outside Ebrahimi’s flat, with many of them calling him a paedophile. The crowd reportedly cheered when he was arrested and taken away to be questioned.
He was released early on 12 July after police found no material of any concern on his computer. Two days later, in the early hours of 14 July, he was murdered.
Disability News Service has been told that Ebrahimi, who had both physical impairments and a mental health condition, had complained repeatedly to police about being attacked on account of his race – and probably also because he was disabled – since at least 2006.
He had been forced to move home at least three times. On one occasion, he broke his legs after he had to jump out of a window to escape his attackers.
On another occasion, he was scalded, dragged out of his room, beaten with a knife handle, and attacked with a baseball bat, and had to be admitted to hospital.
He fled after one attack and became homeless. His landlord evicted his attackers, but they followed him to his next address, where they set fire to his car.
Batook Pandya, director of SARI, which leads the delivery of hate crime support services in Bristol, said Ebrahimi had been receiving support from his organisation since 2006.
He said: “One of the things about Bijan was he reported everything to the police and the housing and he kept on telling them.”
He added: “There was a failure to recognise what was happening with this man. He should have been pulled out of the revolving door; somebody should have taken responsibility.”
Pandya insisted that the police should have gone back to the community on 12 July and told them that Ebrahimi was not a paedophile.
In the DHCN letter to the Conservative attorney general, Dominic Grieve, the coordinators say it is “critically important” that the sentences are increased because of the false paedophile allegations.
Such false claims had been made against several victims of disability hate crime, a trend first highlighted by the journalist Katharine Quarmby in her book Scapegoat, and later by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in its 2011 report Hidden in Plain Sight.
The EHRC report warns that police should “recognise the high level of risk faced by disabled people who have been labelled as ‘paedophiles'” following false allegations.
DHCN said that Avon and Somerset police failed to recognise this threat. If they had, Ebrahimi would not have been returned to his flat by police officers “after being threatened by a mob chanting ‘paedophile'”.
An Avon and Somerset police spokesman said there was “no evidence that ethnicity or health was a factor in Bijan Ebrahimi’s murder”.
He said the force would not be discussing its actions until the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) had completed an inquiry.
A CPS spokesman added: “There was no evidence that Lee James and Steven Norley were motivated by hostility towards Mr Ebrahimi’s race or disability when this offence was committed.”
Meanwhile, Cheri Wilkins, chief executive of The West of England Centre for Inclusive Living, a user-led organisation based in Bristol, said the crime had been “horrific”.
She said: “For this to happen to any person is shocking and upsetting. For this to happen to a disabled person – and it may be on the grounds that they are a disabled person – it does leave some very big questions as to the progress that still needs to be made around disablist hate crime being taken seriously and having the resources and the support given to it.
“If it started with low-level incidents, why have we again gone from one end of the spectrum to another? Why is that still happening?
“Until the low-level incidents are acknowledged as crimes by everybody in society, we will probably continue to have these situations where it progresses to such an extreme level.”
But she said that money was being put into tackling disability hate crime in Bristol. “Not all cities have that level of commitment and yet it still happened here. It reinforces the fact that, despite some good intentions, there is a lot more that needs to be done.”
The IPCC investigation will examine the police’s response to events dating back several years.
As a result of the IPCC probe, 11 police officers and civilian staff are currently under investigation.
Bristol City Council has launched a serious case review into its contacts with Ebrahimi, with a report expected early next year.
28 November 2013