Asylum-seeker's jail death was unlawful: President's nephew escaped torture in Zaire to die in British prison

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The Independent Online
AN asylum-seeker who died in a prison punishment cell while being forcibly restrained and stripped by up to seven prison officers was unlawfully killed, an inquest jury decided yesterday.

Omasase Lumumba, 32-year-old nephew of the murdered Zairean president Patrice Lumumba, survived imprisonment and torture in his native country to die in a British jail.

There were immediate calls for the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate whether criminal charges should be brought against prison staff, and demands for a full public inquiry - not only into the circumstances surrounding the death but also into government policy which allows the practice of locking up asylum seekers as though they are criminals.

The practice has been condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, such as Inquest and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, which both added to calls from Mr Lumumba's family for further inquiries.

Latest figures, for May this year, show that 441 people are being held in prisons under the Immigration Act. Like Mr Lumumba, some are held in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

Mr Lumumba fled Zaire after he and his brother had been held and beaten in August 1991. He was arrested in Catford, south London, on 15 September 1991, initially over the alleged theft of a bicycle - a charge not pursued. But he was then held under the Immigration Act and after five days in police custody transferred to Pentonville prison.

The inquest jury at St Pancras coroner's court, north London, heard that the immigration officer who questioned Mr Lumumba knew little of Zaire and had never heard of Patrice Lumumba.

While in Pentonville, Mr Lumumba became depressed, angry and unable to comprehend his imprisonment. On 8 October - 18 days after he was sent to prison - he was taken to the segregation or punishment block for disobeying an order to return to his cell. Six officers took part in his removal, but when a doctor was called to sedate him, Mr Lumumba was found to be dead.

The cause of death is uncertain but Vesna Djuovic, the pathologist, said there was a 'strong possibility' he had suffered an acute cardiac arrest following a prolonged struggle against restraint. A less likely option was asphyxiation.

Andrew Durance, a fellow prisoner, had described seeing officers standing on Mr Lumumba, kicking him and jumping up and down on him. The officers maintained they had not used unreasonable or excessive force and had only applied approved control and restraint techniques.

The coroner, Dr Douglas Chambers, had ruled that the inquest jury could not return a verdict of unlawful killing or lack of care, because of the absence of conclusive evidence about the medical cause of death. But yesterday he had to redirect jurors after the High Court ruled last May he was wrong to keep the options from them.

Yesterday the jury foreman said that by an eight-to-one majority, jurors had decided Mr Lumumba died 'as the result of the use of improper methods and excessive force in the process of control and restraint'.

The Home Office said yesterday it would look at all the circumstances. The Prison Service Agency said it was seeking legal advice about 'how to take the matter forward'.