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U.K.: British Police Procedure In Question After Brazilian's Death

  • Jan Jun

London, 19 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The "shoot to kill" antiterrorism policy of the British police force is at the center of a major public controversy.

Members of the public are calling for the resignation of London police chief Ian Blair after an independent report indicated police had attempted to cover up details regarding the shooting death of an innocent Brazilian man at the height of the city's terrorist fears last month.

The report, which was leaked to the media, suggest Blair tried to delay the shooting investigation on the grounds that it would impede the terrorist hunt. And a witness statement attests the victim was -- contrary to police reports -- not wearing a bulky coat and had been running to catch a subway train, not to elude police.

Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by a special armed police unit at a London subway station on 22 July.

The shooting came a day after the failed second round of bombing attempts on London transport. Police said they mistakenly identified Menezes as a terrorist after he left an apartment block that was under surveillance.

An independent police commission was tasked with investigating the shooting. This week, after details from the inquiry were leaked, the dead man's family called for a swift conclusion to the investigation.

Gareth Peirce is the family's lawyer. She spoke to the media yesterday after a meeting with members of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which is investigating the shooting.

"We expressed our extreme concern that although [the IPCC] has a statutory duty to investigate from the very moment of a fatal death at the hands of the state, they were not there," Peirce said. "And it appears we know not whether it was the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police (Ian Blair) or the Home Secretary (Charles Clarke), or both, [who] delayed their advent into the case. But they are in the case now, and we've asked for a fast investigation on behalf of the family."

According to the leaked information, Blair was concerned an independent inquiry would hamper ongoing security operations. Documents on the Menezes shooting were finally handed to the IPCC three days after the killing, following objections from the Home Office.

IPCC Deputy Chairman John Wadham confirmed the information at yesterday's press conference.

"The Metropolitan Police Service initially resisted us taking on the investigation, but we overcame that. It was an important victory for our independence," Wadham said. "This dispute has caused us delay in taking over the investigation, but we've worked hard to recover the lost ground."
Following the shooting, police said Menezes had acted suspiciously -- wearing a bulky coat in the heat of summer, and jumping over subway barricades.

Another leaked document shows the police made grave errors during the operation that ended with Menezes being shot dead at close range.

During surveillance of the South London flats where an alleged terrorist was believed to be living, the policeman tasked with identifying people leaving the building was urinating, and did not see the man's face. He therefore missed an opportunity to warn fellow officers that Menezes was likely not the man they wanted to follow.

Following the shooting, police said Menezes had acted suspiciously -- wearing a bulky coat in the heat of summer, and jumping over subway barricades. Those actions, they said, led them to believe he was a potential bomber, with explosives under his coat.

But a witness statement that was among the leaked documents said Menezes was wearing a denim jacket and did not jump over a barrier. He reportedly picked up a free newspaper, entered with a ticket, and began walking calmly down to the platform. He began to run, the witness said, only when he heard a train was coming. Once on the train, he was restrained by the police, who waited only seconds before firing eight shots into his head and one into his shoulder at point-blank range.

Lawyer Gareth Peirce said there are many inconsistencies between the version presented by the police and that submitted later by the IPCC.

"It has been a chaotic mess. And what we've asked the IPCC to find out is how much of it is incompetence and negligence, including gross negligence, and how much of it may be something more sinister," Peirce said. "We don't know, we're simply asking the questions."

The IPCC now says the inquiry is making good progress and should be completed within three to six months.

For now, police chief Blair says he is receiving far more expressions of support than calls to resign. But members of the British public, like 32-year-old Allison, are not so confident he should stay.

"I think that not necessarily... he shouldn't resign straight away," Allison said. "But I do feel that he should be investigated because of the situation that the police were put in, and he seems to be trying to pass the blame on to somebody else."

In a democracy, Allison added, "the police should simply be accountable to the people."