The Independent has been told that detectives investigating the death of Joy Gardner were shocked to discover that her face appeared to have been partially bound with tape, apparently to stop her screaming, when she was detained at her home in Hornsey, north London, a week ago. This was in addition to the use of a body belt.
Mrs Gardner, 40, who was with her five-year-old son, collapsed; the officers gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and she was taken to hospital where she remained on a life-support machine until Sunday night.
The use of some type of gag appears consistent with the conclusion of the post-mortem examination that Mrs Gardner's death was due to 'hypoxic brain damage' - in effect, lack of oxygen. Suggestions by Myrna Simpson, Mrs Gardner's mother, that she had been told that her daughter died from renal failure appear to have been a misunderstanding or a mistake.
Further tests are being conducted to establish whether the gag was responsible; Mrs Gardner's family has also commissioned an independent post-mortem examination. The inquiries will try to ascertain whether a 'choke hold' was used by the officers.
Bernie Grant, the Labour MP for Tottenham, who has acted as a contact between police and the local community, last night confirmed the use of tape was an issue in the inquiry: 'I understand that there are suggestions that Mrs Gardner's face was covered by a 4in-wide Sellotape mask affair.'
A Nigerian women, Dorothy Nwokedi, has also alleged that a month ago, officers from the same squad used 'broad Sellotape' to bind her legs, knees and ankles at Gatwick when she began crying before being put on a flight to her home country.
Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who has suspended the specialist deportations squad, SO1(3), as well as the three officers involved, is said to have been deeply concerned at what he termed the 'unusual' use of tape in the Gardner case, as well as the use of the body belt.
Such use of tape is certain to increase the already deep concern about the case, the methods employed by the squad and the implications for the relations between the Metropolitan Police and ethnic communities.
Sunil Ghelani, a lawyer for Mrs Gardner's family, said: 'We have not been told about a gag or anything like that. It is precisely to resolve these kind of issues that we wish to see a public inquiry into the case and not simply a police investigation.'
The death is being investigated by Essex Police under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority; Mr Condon is also conducting a review of the force's involvement in deportation work. Scotland Yard has refused to comment on any aspect until the inquiries are complete.
Mr Condon is said to have described the use of the body belt as 'abhorrent'. The leather belt, with attached cuffs for hands and legs, was used by the squad for restraining difficult cases.
Sources say the belt was 'developed' by the squad, rather than bought commercially. A similar leather body belt with handcuffs attached is used regularly by prisons for restraining violent and difficult prisoners; its use is subject to strict guidelines and has been strongly criticised by prison reform groups. The prison service yesterday said they were made 'internally' and not sold to police.
A spokesman for Hiatt and Co, a Birmingham company which supplies police with handcuffs and which once produced stocks and leg irons for Third World countries, said no British company now made or sold such devices. 'Export of leg irons is prohibited since 1984 and these type of body belts probably fall into that category.'
It is known police officers were expecting violence. Mrs Gardner's former husband, who is reported to have sought two court injunctions over his wife, claiming at one point that she had beat him, is understood to have told officers she was violent.
Charles Wardle, the Home Office immigration minister, yesterday repeated the Government's insistence that there would be no public inquiry. He rejected suggestions that deportation escort work could be transferred to a private company such as Group 4.
Mrs Simpson pleaded for peace last night as an angry mob of protesters threatened to firebomb the local police station. She called for 'a distinguished and respectful protest' as she faced a crowd of 500 supporters, both black and white, angered by the death of her daughter.
However, her pleas for calm at the mass meeting at the West Indian Cultural Centre in Hornsey, north London - called to support an independent inquiry into the death - were interrupted by shouts of 'Let's firebomb the police station'.
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