Three former G4S guards were cleared yesterday of manslaughter over the killing of an Angolan man on a deportation flight from Heathrow, prompting campaigners to demand more accountability for private security firms.
The three men had been accused of using a restraint technique known as “carpet karaoke”, and held down 46-year-old Jimmy Mubenga for more than half an hour while ignoring his increasingly desperate warnings that he could not breathe.
By the time that cabin crew on the October 2010 flight raised the alarm, his heart had stopped beating and he died later in hospital.
The three guards, Terrence Hughes, 53, Colin Kaler, 52, and Stuart Tribelnig, 39, were told in 2012 that they would not be charged with manslaughter. But prosecutors changed their minds after an inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing last year.
The jury – which was not told about the inquest decision, or that Mr Hughes and Mr Tribelnig had a string of racist jokes on their phones – cleared the men yesterday after a six-week trial.
“They bitterly regret the death of Mr Mubenga but have always said they were trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances to the best of their ability,” lawyers for the three men said in a statement.
Mr Mubenga’s widow said that she was shocked and disappointed by the jury’s findings. “It is hard for me to understand how the jury reached this decision with all the overwhelming evidence that Jimmy said over and over that he could not breathe,” she said yesterday.
Before boarding the plane, Mr Mubenga had been fit, healthy and co-operative but had become upset after talking on his mobile in the toilet cubicle, the court was told.
The guards were alleged to have responded by handcuffing him behind his back, forcing him into a seat and pinning him down leaning forwards in a position which affected his ability to breathe.
Before Mr Hughes joined G4S, staff at his previous security firm had used a technique called “carpet karaoke”.
But the restraint of pushing a seated person’s head forward, compressing the diaphragm to stop them spitting, was later deemed “malpractice”. Mr Hughes told jurors he had seen it work on two occasions but he denied he had ever used it himself or picked it up on the job from his “elders”.
The men said they had only restrained Mr Mubenga to stop him from hurting himself or others and said they had never heard him shouting that he was struggling to breathe. The guards stopped working for G4S after the scandal-hit company lost the contract to deport prisoners from Britain in 2011.
They are no longer working in the security industry, said their solicitor Alex Preston, but declined to give further detail. While they were charged with manslaughter, the company did not face corporate charges.
Deborah Coles, of the rights group Inquest, said: “There needs to be a mechanism for state institutions and the private companies they employ to be held to account when people die.
“The lack of state accountability over black deaths in custody is a global issue.”
The death of Mr Mubenga is just one of a series of high-profile security scandals involving G4S, including the Olympics debacle when it failed to supply enough security guards for venues. It also faced a separate inquiry after it emerged that the company had overcharged the Ministry of Justice for tagging offenders.