Bijan Ebrahimi

Bijan Ebrahimi (1969–2013): Disabled Iranian man murdered by vigilantes in Bristol in England
Born: 1969, Iran
Died: 2013, Bristol (England)

In pale autumn sunshine, two small children on scooters rattle along uneven paving stones past the house where Bijan Ebrahimi once lived. The planters full of blooms and the hanging baskets that he tended lovingly are long gone. The front window that he had peered out of in terror as locals stood baying for his blood is now covered by a screen of corrugated steel.

This bleak courtyard in inner city Bristol, surrounded by a block of council maisonettes and with an old trampoline rotting in the middle, was where, in the early hours of July 14, an innocent man became the victim of mob rule. In an act of savagery almost unthinkable in modern Britain, he was attacked in his home, beaten unconscious and then dragged out to a nearby front garden, his body doused in white spirit and set alight.

This week, the shocking details of the crime have begun to emerge after Lee James and Stephen Norley, both 24, who lived near Mr Ebrahimi, admitted their part in the attack at Bristol Crown Court. James has pleaded guilty to murder while Norley has denied murder but admitted assisting his co-accused.

Mr Ebrahimi, 44, who was originally from Iran, was a shy man. Few people in the block on Capgrave Crescent, Brislington, where he had lived for the past three years, had heard him utter a word before his desperate screams for help that warm summer night. Registered disabled and unable to work, his joys in life were his garden and his tabby cat. But his differences made him stand out. He was bullied by neighbours and tormented by teenagers who vandalised his garden.

When he attempted to take photographs of youngsters destroying the flowers in his pots and hanging baskets to show the police he was branded a paedophile. He turned to the police for help and phoned them on July 11. But instead Mr Ebrahimi was arrested on suspicion of a breach of the peace in front of a mob of around 20 children and adults who screamed “paedo, paedo” as he was led away. He was released without charge the next day. But rumours continued to circulate and two days later some of his neighbours came for him. Last month, a spokesman for Avon and Somerset police reiterated Mr Ebrahimi’s innocence: “We can categorically state he had not taken any indecent images and that nothing of concern had been found on his computer.”

This week, a 58-year-old retired bricklayer who says he was Mr Ebrahimi’s only real friend in the area, said: “It was like throwing him into the lions’ den.” He and his wife, who like many I spoke to asked not to be named, live in nearby Broomhill Road. They got to know the man they affectionately nicknamed “Ben” by coaxing conversation out of him as he waited at the bus stop on occasional trips into town. He spoke very little due to a mental disability, it is claimed, but as he began to trust them he would drop by for cups of tea once a week on Thursdays or Fridays. He had paid a brief visit the night before he was killed.

“All he would say about it was he had some trouble,” says the friend. “He wasn’t scared but he was definitely intimidated. He said he had trouble before with people there. I just told him to take no notice. He didn’t deserve that. It was devastating to find out [what happened]. How could anybody do that to somebody like him?”

At first, with details patchy and rumours rife, the killing of a man by his neighbours made a few headlines only in the local press. But following James and Norley’s guilty pleas, a terrifying picture of the way a community turned on one of its own has became clear. People living down the street from where the murder took place, speak of the maisonette block as rife with drugs and antisocial behaviour. Problem tenants, they say, are constantly moved in and out. “It is a different world around that courtyard,” says Roy Blake, 39, a father of three who has lived in the area for 15 years. “Definitely we have got a few families around here you wouldn’t want.”

But there are far worse streets in Bristol, let alone the rest of Britain, and it is more than just a few who appeared to have targeted Bijan Ebrahimi. In the space of a few days hatred had spread like wildfire through the estate, fuelled, residents say, by comments on Facebook. Even after he was killed some still attempted to smear his name.

There are others, too, who may have – unwittingly or otherwise – had a hand in his awful death.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has launched an investigation into police contact with Ebrahimi before his death. Six Avon and Somerset officers have been served with notices of gross misconduct. Soon after the murder, three unnamed constables who dealt with him between July 11 and July 13, were suspended. The trio have now been interviewed under criminal caution. An inspector, sergeant and constable who held him in custody on July 12 have also been interviewed by the IPCC, although not under criminal caution, and remain on duty. Further interviews with six civilian call handlers are planned.

On Capgrave Crescent, bloodlust has turned to contrition. Nobody, it appears, now has a bad word to say about the murdered man. But numerous eyewitnesses confirm the level of vitriol to which he was subjected to when first arrested. One mother-of-two, who knew Norley and described him as a “family man”, says: “I came out with the dog to go for a walk and there was a big crowd outside [Ebrahimi’s] house so we went back inside. It was a mixture of old and young people. It was unbelievable how they [the police] let him come back knowing there was that kind of feeling around here. It’s terrible. You can’t forget about what happened. It’s on your doorstep.”

Mr Ebrahimi’s friend, the retired bricklayer, confirms that when police brought him back he was subjected to more abuse. “The police could hear people shouting 'paedo’ and 'nonce’ at him as he was dropped off. They just left him outside. The police could have protected him by just telling them he wasn’t a paedophile. It was all just jumping on a bandwagon. Now people here have found out he’s innocent they’ve completely changed what they’re saying.”

Four people were arrested following the attack, James, Norley and two women, aged 24 and 32, who were later released without charge. Even in court, some still appeared to try to vindicate what they had done. “Keep your chin up,” one young man in the public gallery shouted at Norley as he was led to the cells following his first appearance at Bristol Magistrates Court in July. “I’ll get you out.”

Ebrahimi’s family, some of whom are thought to live in Bristol, have called for James and Norley to face the full force of justice when they are sentenced on November 28, as well as “all of those who failed to protect Bijan, including the police”. The lacklustre response by the authorities, his family say, is made all the worse given that he had been a victim of bullying and abuse for a number of years due to his race and disability. “It is difficult to put into words the family’s grief at a blameless man being beaten to death and set on fire in 21st-century England,” the family’s solicitor Tony Murphy said in a statement yesterday.

It has been reported that Ebrahimi was moved to Capgrave Crescent from his previous council home on nearby Callington Road after being targeted by neighbours. Bristol City Council has refused to confirm this, or whether it had received any reports of antisocial behaviour from Ebrahimi during his time at Capgrave Crescent. The authority has launched a voluntary independent case review. Avon and Somerset’s chief constable, Nick Gargan, meanwhile, has called his death “a collective failure”.

Over the past few months there have been numerous vigilante-style incidents in Britain, where anonymous online “hunters” attempt to name and shame suspected paedophiles regardless of concrete evidence. Some groups active in the Midlands – where suspects are confronted on camera and the films then posted on the internet – have led to a handful of convictions. Other innocent people, though, have reported having their lives destroyed and being hounded out of communities due to false claims. Earlier this year, a 29-year-old engineer, Gary Cleary, hanged himself days after being confronted in public in Leicester by a now disbanded group called Letzgohunting for supposedly grooming a child over the internet. He had not been charged with any offence.

“Vigilantes often think they are doing the right thing when they’re not,” says Peter Davies, director of child exploitation and online abuse protection at the National Crime Agency. “But in this particular murder, I don’t really see any point where the people involved thought they were doing a just or righteous thing on behalf of the community. It’s barbaric. If you described this set of circumstances to somebody they would think that couldn’t happen in modern-day Britain.

“The victims may not fit into modern stereotypes, not have many friends, but not be doing anything wrong apart from trying to live a normal life. It is the most vulnerable who are targeted. My strong view is that it should be reported to the right authorities. We should trust police and social services to do the right thing.”

The tragedy of Bijan Ebrahimi is that he contacted the police, and trusted those in a position of authority to protect him. Instead he was abandoned to face the sort of injustice that doesn’t belong on any street in Britain.

“I don’t want to talk about it any more,” one neighbour said at the front door of her home overlooking the courtyard. “I just want him to rest in peace.”

The grass may have grown over the scorched patch of garden where an innocent man’s burning body was dumped four months ago, but nobody connected to this desperate story will ever be able to forget it.

Joe Shute, “Bijan Ebrahimi: An Innocent Man Thrown to the Mob”, The Telegraph, 1 November 2013

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