- Created: Friday, 22 May 2009 11:16
- Written by Nicki Jameson
On 15 August Henry Momodou and Behar Limani were convicted of violent disorder and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. They had been charged with participating in the uprising at the Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre on 14 February 2002, in which the centre was wrecked and large parts of it burned to the ground.
Aliane Ahmed and Nassem Moustaffa had earlier pleaded guilty to playing minor parts in the disturbance. The remaining seven defendants were acquitted. This did not prevent six of them being immediately re-arrested and detained under immigration law, and, in one case, summarily deported.
Yarl’s Wood opened in Autumn 2001 to house 900 people awaiting deportation. It was built in a hurry and on the cheap. Despite advice from the Fire Service, no sprinkler system was installed and, according to evidence at the trial, during the revolt the walls shook visibly. Custodial staff had little training and even less understanding of the situation of the people they were employed to warehouse.
On 14 February a woman detainee was refused permission to attend church. She protested and was forcibly restrained by Group 4 guards. Other detainees, already angry at their imprisonment and treatment, came to her aid and the incident escalated into a full-scale uprising.
Following the revolt and the fire there has been massive wrangling between Bedfordshire police and Group 4. Initially, the police treated Group 4 as a potential criminal suspect; however Group 4 is now suing the police for £96m compensation under the 1886 Riot Damages Act.
Shielded by the use of private contractors to run the government’s immigration prisons, Home Secretary David Blunkett was free to concentrate on ensuring that no blame was attached to his immigration policies. His task was to characterise the detainees as ungratefully vandalising their luxury home, rather than taking a desperate stand against a vindictive, racist system. In this he had the full support of the right-wing media. Since the Yarl’s Wood revolt, there has been a daily stream of racist propaganda in newspapers and on TV, portraying asylum seekers as public enemy number one.
It is therefore small wonder that the Yarl’s Wood jury contained two members who think all asylum seekers are scroungers. Their overt prejudice and the fact that the judge, when alerted to it, did not stop the trial, is likely to be central to the appeals of Henry Momodou and Behar Limani.
However, even a prejudiced jury could not convict the other defendants, despite Group 4 spending vast sums on ‘courtroom skills’ training for prosecution witnesses and the state ensuring that many potential defence witnesses were deported and/or rendered untraceable.
Prisons Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, is currently conducting the government inquiry into the events at Yarl’s Wood. Despite calls by campaigners for it to be public, the inquiry is to be held behind closed doors. Although Shaw describes the investigation as ‘an over-arching one, concerned with context and principles, as well as the events themselves’, his official remit is clearly limited to examining the events and their immediate causes. He is then charged with making recommendations designed to prevent ‘any further recurrence in the IND custodial estate in relation to contracts and agreements with service providers, the operation of removal centres, building design and construction, and any other matters considered relevant.’
The inquiry may therefore possibly stretch to considering the effect the government’s plans to drastically reduce legal aid for immigrants and cut back on rights to appeal will have on the number of men, women and children herded into such places in the future. But the ‘principles’ under consideration will not include the principle of whether it is ever right to imprison asylum seekers or the questions of why there are refugees and what they are fleeing. However ‘joined up’ the Labour government claims to be, the inquiry into Yarl’s Wood will never be allowed to join up the fire there to the fires in Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan, which are among the countries currently producing the bulk of asylum applicants to Britain.
Yarl’s Wood is about to reopen. The first occupants will be 60 single women – by 2005 it is planned to be holding 400 families awaiting deportation.
Send letters of solidarity to Henry Momodou, Behar Limani, and Aliane Ahmed, at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, Du Cane Road, London W12 0AE.
FRFI 175 October / November 2003