Yesterday a jury delivered one of the most astounding verdicts that the British justice system has produced in many years, when it found three former G4S guards not guilty of the manslaughter by gross negligence of Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan deportee who was asphyxiated while being forcibly held down in his seat during a deportation flight in 2010.
Mubenga should never have been on that plane at all. He was the father of five children and he had been living in the UK for seventeen years since coming to the UK to seek asylum in 1994. He had just served a sentence for ABH – his first offense – after a pub brawl. That should have been the end of it. But not in the UK, because Mubenga was a ‘foreign national offender’, who British governments love to deport in order to show the British public that they are tough on immigration by ratcheting up deportation statistics.
So Mubenga was put on a British Airways flight to Luanda. While on the plane he became ‘distressed’ after a mobile phone conversation with his wife. The G4S guards then handcuffed his hands behind his back and held him doubled over in his seat with his seat belt on and his head between his knees for more than half an hour, in a position that G4S guards charmingly call ‘carpet karaoke‘ till he died of a heart attack.
Numerous passengers and cabin crew afterwards described how Mubenga cried out repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe for more than ten minutes, but the guards did not respond or release him until he went limp.
Last year an inquest found the three guards guilty of unlawfully killing Mubenga through the use of unreasonable force, but the Old Bailey jury was not made aware of that verdict on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to the accused. For the same reason, the jury was not informed of dozens of racists tweets and messages found on the mobile phones of two of the guards, which included what the QC at last year’s inquest had described as ‘very racially offensive material.’
Some might conclude that such evidence could cast light on why three white guards were able to calmly sit down on a passenger plane and coolly suffocate a black man to death, but the judge accepted the defense’s arguement that because the guard’s tweets were also misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Liverpudlian, then people in the jury who might be belong to these categories would be prejudiced against the defendants.
Even without these narrowed parameters, the jury still had enough evidence to reach a guilty verdict. Yet they chose to ignore the testimonies from passengers and cabin crew regarding Mubenga’s vocal protests, and believed the guards’ improbable and frankly ludicrous assertion that they had not held him down and that Mubenga had forced himself into the doubled-over position.
How could someone have forced himself into that position and then remained in it to the point where he could make himself die? What were the guards doing during all this – reading airline magazines or looking at the duty free? How was it that passengers and crew heard Mubenga shouting that he couldn’t breathe yet the three guards claim that they couldn’t?
Yesterday the three guards greeted the verdict with tears, and appeared looking grim-faced and sorrowful next to their solicitor, who insisted his clients ‘ bitterly regret the death of Mr Mubenga, but have always said they were trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances to the best of their ability.’
And G4S, a company with a long history of violent and racist treatment of migrant deportees has declared ‘The death of Mr Mubenga was a tragic incident and our thoughts and condolences remain with his family and friends.’
Others will conclude that it was not a ‘tragic incident’ but a crime, and these these three men are not the ones who should be crying. As an African asylum seeker, a ‘migrant’ and a ‘foreign criminal’, however, Mubenga was a disposable and second-class person to many different people and institutions; to the British public and the government and the Home Office; to the powerful and all but unaccountable corporation that deported him; to the guards who brought about his terrible death.
In delivering this shameful and disgraceful travesty of a verdict , the judge, jury and the CPS have also demonstrated that certain categories of people simply don’t matter as much as others, and once again contrived to produce a situation in which a black man dies at the hands of white men, and no one is held responsible for it.