Engineer jailed in Ulster wins damages for race bias

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An African engineer who travelled to Northern Ireland for a holiday only to be wrongly imprisoned on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant has won an apology and compensation from the Border and Immigration Agency.

Frank Kakopa, of Zimbabwe, spent two days in the high-security Maghaberry Prison in CoAntrim despite having produced papers from his employer confirming that he was living and working legally in the UK. He was also strip-searched.

Mr Kakopa, a structural engineer, was working in Liverpool and Warrington when he took his wife and children, aged six and 12, to Northern Ireland for a few days' holiday in August 2005. But he was detained at Belfast City Airport as soon as they stepped off their flight from Liverpool.

His distraught family were left stranded at the airport, and officials told his wife to return home to Warrington and forward his work permit to the immigration service. Leaving the children with friends from Dublin, she was able to do so and Mr Kakopa was released.

He said: "It is still difficult to believe that what was supposed to be a relaxing break for my family turned out to be our worst nightmare.

"I was locked up with convicted criminals, having committed no crime, while my wife and young children were left abandoned at the airport of a strange country worrying about where I was and how I was being treated."

More than two years later, he has received £7,500 in compensation and an apology after taking the agency to court with help from the Equality Commission Northern Ireland, alleging false imprisonment and discrimination contrary to the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order.

The case was due to be heard at Belfast County Court, but was settled when the agency admitted that he had been "unlawfully and falsely imprisoned" and agreed to pay compensation. It also, according to the Equalities Commission, "unreservedly apologised to Mr Kakopa and his family for this and for the significant injury to his feelings and the hurt and distress he suffered".

Mr Kakopa, who had worked in Dublin for two years before moving to northern England in 2003, said: "It is deplorable that in this day and age that incidents such as this are allowed to happen. I was wronged and my family suffered as a result of this treatment.

"It was therefore necessary to fight for justice both for my own peace of mind and to ensure that no other family experience similar treatment in the future.

"My family and I are grateful for the support we received from the Equality Commission NI. However, the whole episode will have a lasting negative effect on my family for many years to come."

Mr Kakopa believed he was detained simply because he was black, he told the Irish newspaper Sunday Life yesterday.

Eileen Lavery, the head of strategic enforcement at the Equality Commission said: "As a direct result of this case, the immigration service has undertaken to discuss its practices and procedures with the Equality Commission, to ensure that immigration officers working in Northern Ireland comply fully with the law. The commission also welcomes the immigration service's affirmation of commitment to equality of opportunity and the elimination of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins."

A spokeswoman for the Border and Immigration Agency said: "We do not comment on individual cases."