Campsfield Immigration Detention centre was opened in November 1993. It has places for 200 asylum seekers, who are locked up behind high wire fences without charge and without time limits, controlled by poorly paid and often racist private Group 4 guards and over 40 video cameras. Unsurprisingly, there have been many protests and several hunger strikes, often provoked by the unannounced and unexplained removal of detainees to other prisons, presumably as a deterrent against complaints or "indiscipline". Early on August 20 1997, this happened yet again. Two West African asylum seekers at Campsfield were woken, as usual without warning, to be removed to prison. One of them resisted; detainees saw him pinned to the ground and thought he was being strangled and "was going to die". Some of them protested at this treatment. Parts of the premises were then burnt and damaged and, as on previous occasions, 50 or 60 detainees escaped into a courtyard.
Subsequently 13 detainees were arrested and charged with riot and violent disorder under the 1986 Public Order Act. The charges carry maximum sentences of, respectively, ten and five years, probably followed by deportation - to face prison and possible death. The charges against four of them (a Lebanese minor, two Caribbeans and a Liberian) were later dropped. The remaining nine are male West African asylum seekers: six Nigerians, a Ghanaian, a Gambian and a Liberian. Two are minors; another is nineteen years old. At least one of them had been severely tortured in Nigeria. Another Nigerian, now on bail, was given refugee status and released from Campsfield shortly after the August protest. Of the others, five are in Bullingdon prison, two are in Reading young offenders institution and one was removed from Feltham YOI to a secure mental hospital after he tried to commit suicide.
None of the many protests at Campsfield gave rise to criminal charges under the previous government. On June 5 1994 there was physical damage similar to that claimed on August 20 1997. In theory criminal charges are a matter for the police, but on August 20 and 21 the Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien threatened criminal charges and said the detainees "need their heads examined". His press release was headed "BURNING THEIR BOOKS - IN A MOMENT OF MADNESS", although the individual who did this has not been identified or charged, and detainees deplore the action. When, subsequently, the police were taking statements in Banbury police station, one police officer told the lawyers present that "this was not going anywhere" until they received a telephone call from the Home Office ("all the way from the top"). The Home Office set up an incidents room with facilities that would normally be unavailable to the police. The trial is clearly political, desired by the government.
The chances of it being a fair trial appear slight. As well as making inflammatory statements after the protest, the government appears to be stoking up anti-refugee sentiment in general, with references to "illegal immigrants" and "bogus asylum seekers". Defence witnesses will be hard to find, mainly because of Campsfield detainees' extreme vulnerability to retaliation from Group 4, the immigration service and their own governments. Some potential witnesses have been deported or have left, including a detainee who gave a statement for the prosecution, and the Nigerian violently removed on August 20.
There were at least 50 detainees milling about in the courtyard, of all nationalities and both sexes. However those charged were, except for the Lebanese minor, all male black Africans or Caribbeans. It seems that any black would do. As with detention itself, and as with removals to other prisons, the process is arbitrary. When detainees are removed to prison, if reasons are given (which is not always the case), they are sometimes clearly inventions by Group 4; on the other hand those removed may have previously made the mistake of complaining about Group 4's racist behaviour, or other aspects of their detention. The nine West Africans all deny the charges against them, but the jury will have to choose whether to believe them or their white Group 4 guards.
The trial is due to start on June 1. It is likely to last for about two months, by which time the eight West Africans may have spent nearly a year in custody. After four appearances at Oxford Magistrates Court, eight of the defendants accepted committal to the Oxford Crown Court at the end of 1997; one unsuccessfully disputed the adequacy of the prosecution's evidence, in an "old style" committal, on January 9 1998. They appeared for plea and directions hearings at the Oxford Crown Court on February 9 and March 9. On both of these occasions the judges directed that the prosecution should, as the defence requested, accelerate the process, produce the evidence in an adequate form, specify the charges, and define what it meant by "common purpose" (which the prosecution has to prove to obtain convictions for riot or violent disorder). The judges also turned down the prosecution's request to postpone the trial until the autumn. They refused, however, to allow the defence to have QCs, although the prosecution is to have a QC; they also refused in most cases to allow the transfer of legal aid which would have meant that all of the defendants could have lawyers with a strong record in defending criminal cases.
The eight prisoners find their situation hard to bear, although there are some compensations: the prison guards apparently treat them better than Group 4, and are less racist, and as criminals they have more rights than as asylum-seekers. However they are locked in their cells for most of the day, some on their own, some with convicted criminals. The two minors have become depressed, one so seriously that he was removed to the hospital wing of Feltham YOI, where he hoarded and then took anti-depressants; he was then moved to a secure mental hospital. Another was temporarily moved from Reading YOI to Feltham hospital wing after he tried to hang himself. Four of the five in Bullingdon prison went briefly on hunger strike. On December 12 one of them was taken from court to the John Radcliffe hospital, where he remained, unconscious, on a drip, and chained to a guard. On his return three days later to Bullingdon prison he was transferred to a strip cell, and deprived of his clothes, books, paper and all his belongings. This suicide prevention treatment was also meted out to another asylum seeker. The two were then moved to a wing for convicted criminals and eventually put together.
In November the Bullingdon prisoners sent us a letter which said in part:
Members of the defence campaign and supporters visit all the prisoners, and have ascertained that they want a public campaign on their behalf. We have obtained publicity in the local and national media and hope for more. We have organised lobbies and filled the public gallery at each of the court appearances, and plan a major national mobilization when the trial begins at Oxford Crown Court, St Aldates on June 1 (lobby from 8.30 to 10am; trial begins at 10am). Events related to the defence campaign are listed here or may be obtained from Bill on 01865 558145. Daily updates on the trial, starting June 1, will be provided at this website.
On June 17, the prosecution case collapsed after countless allegations by Group 4 witnesses were proved to be false. One jury member was reported to have said afterwards that the Group 4 and Immigration officials should have been on trial. However, despite admitting to destroying equipment and hitting detainees with batons, all prosecution witnesses walked free - while five of the nine were moved to Rochester prison. Of the others, three now have refugee status or exceptional leave to remain (ELR), and one is in a psychiatric hospital, traumatised by his prolonged incarceration and the false allegations against him. The Campaign to Close Campsfield calls for these six men to be released immediately and given ELR or refugee status. They have already suffered up to two years of detention, including at least eight months in prison as a direct result of false, malicious allegations by employees of the Home Office. If deported they will almost certainly face persecution as a direct result of these false charges which have been reported in Nigeria and elsewhere and attracted the interest of the Nigerian consulate (three of the six are Nigerians). This is in addition to persecution they would otherwise be facing for their political beliefs and/or activities. Please write to the Home Office, calling for these six men and boys (two are 17) to be released immediately. Write to
The Rt Hon Jack Straw M.P.
Queen Anne's Gate, London W1, UK
Michael O'Brien M.P.
Secretary of State for Immigration,
Queen Anne's Gate, London W1, UK
UK Immigration Service
Heathrow Airport - London
Middlesex TW6 3XB
protesting about the detention of these men, who have suffered considerably at the hands of the Immigration Service and justice system.
The former defendants would appreciate a letter of support. Please write to:
Stanley Nwadike, TC 1057, E wing
Sambou Marong TC 1005 D wing
John Quaquah TC 1056 E wing
Enahoro Esemuze TC 1063 E wing
Harrison Tubman TC 1064 E wing
1, Fort Road
Kent ME1 3QS
(Next page), (Home)