Who killed Jimmy Mubenga?

Last week’s verdict of unlawful killing at the inquest into the death of the 46-year-old Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga in October 2010 is a huge victory for his family, and a blow to the institutional indifference that had previously threatened to cast this horrendous episode into legal and historical oblivion.

Mubenga died on the runway at Heathrow, after being held down in his seat in a bent double restraining position by three G4S escorts that cut off his air supply. This technique is apparently known jokily in the trade as ‘carpet karaoke’, and in Mubenga’s case it resulted in a cruel and horrific death.

After lunging at his guards in what appears to have been a desperate attempt to stop his deportation, Mubenga was handcuffed behind his back and held down in his seat, even though he shouted out repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe, and died before the plane had left the runway.  Despite testaments from some passengers that the guards ignored his calls for help,  the Crown Prosecution Service decided last year that there were no grounds for prosecution.

Now the the inquest has concluded that the three guards

‘ …were using unreasonable force and acting in an unlawful manner. The fact that Mr Mubenga was pushed or held down, or a combination of the two, was a significant, that is more than minimal, cause of death.  The guards, we believe, would have known that they would have caused Mr Mubenga harm in their actions, if not serious harm.’

This verdict must surely oblige the CPS to revisit its decision and bring criminal charges against the three guards, and will hopefully enable Mubenga’s family to take out damages claims against G4S.   From the point of view of simple justice,  the three guards Stuart Tribelnig, Terry Hughes and Colin Kaler clearly deserve to be on trial for manslaughter.

But there is a wider moral responsibility for Mubenga’s death that goes beyond the brutality of  three racist security guards.  It includes G4S,  which included the restraining technique they used in its training.   It includes the passengers who heard Mubenga’s cries for help and did nothing to intervene.

Whether they were so overawed by the sight of men in uniform that they thought there must be a good reason for what they were doing, or whether they didn’t want to make a scene and delay their own flight, their collective indifference is shocking and depressing.

But such indifference is symptomatic of the wider indifference of British society to the  institutionalized cruelty and inhumanity of a deportation process, in which governments brag of their ability to deport ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘foreign criminals’ in order to curry votes and assuage public ‘concerns’ about immigration, while handing out their dirty work to private companies who profit from deportations, and further screen their actual procedures and practices from public scrutiny.

There is abundant evidence of the routine brutality and inhumanity through which private companies ‘defend our borders’ through deportations, yet the public has been so corrupted by years of anti-migrant rhetoric from politicians and the media that for the most part it hardly pays any attention to such things, or rationalizes them as a form of ‘collateral damage’ in the ‘fight’ against illegal immigration.

Two of the guards who held Mubenga down were found to have racist texts on their mobile phones.   During the inquest, the jury heard one text on Terry Hughes’ phone which read:

‘And have you noticed that if you rearrange the letters in illegal immigrant and add just a few more it spells out fuck off and go home you freeloading, benefit-grabbing, kid-producing, violent, non-English speaking, cocksuckers and take those hairy-faced, sandal wearing, bomb-making, goat-fucking, smelly raghead bastards with you. How weird is that?’

The language may be cruder, but similar messages are disseminated in a more polite and sophisticated fashion by the anti-immigrant lobby on a fairly regular basis.  All these factors have contributed to a situation in which deportees can beaten, humiliated, dragged onto planes like Guantanamo-style ‘enemy combatants’, by private companies acting on behalf of the state,  so that politicians can wave crowd-pleasing statistics at the public and boast that they are ‘doing something’ about immigration or upholding ‘social cohesion’.

The result is that Mubenga was ‘unlawfully killed’ on a flight that he should never have been on in the first place.  He had been living in the UK since 1994, where he had been granted exceptional leave to remain after coming to the country as a political refugee.

He was married and had five children, all of whom were born in the UK.    Yet the Home Office chose to deport him to a country that he had not seen in sixteen years,  because he had been been sentenced to two years in prison for actual bodily harm during a nightclub brawl.

This was Mubenga’s first offence and he  had served his time for it, which should have been the end of the matter.  But in the UK the defense of ‘our’ borders means that foreign nationals can effectively be punished twice for the same offence, even if it means punishing their families too, so that the government can add another deportee to its annual statistics.

If Mubenga lost it on the plane, and tried to prevent his deportation, who can blame him for that?  He was about to be taken from his wife and children, and sent back to a country where he had nothing.

In these circumstances he had nothing to lose but his life, and the dim-witted corporate hirelings who took it from him are only the frontline instruments of a deportation machinery that dehumanizes both its victims and the society that makes such things possible.

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