No regrets. No remorse. No respect. How Victoria's killer added insult to tragedy

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The Independent Online

With all the malevolence of the "evil spirits" she claimed had possessed her "daughter", Marie Therese Kouao swept into the Victoria Climbie inquiry yesterday without remorse, regret or explanation for what has come to be known as Britain's worst case of child abuse.

During a ranting, almost hysterical, appearance characterised by arrogance and disdain for the hearing, the woman who starved, burnt, beat and terrorised eight-year-old Victoria to death made fanciful claims that she was the innocent victim of a conspiracy to cover up medical incompetence by switching the child's body.

Not once did she address Victoria's parents, sitting only feet away. Instead, she insulted them, wrongly claiming they were not married and shouting that they had not loved the girl as much as she had.

Kouao, 45, had come to the inquiry from the cell in Durham jail where she is serving life for Victoria's killing. It was the first time a murderer had been brought before such a hearing, but it was to bear little fruit. Handcuffed to a female prison officer, she walked in, head held high, wearing a floral dress and a plum-coloured woollen shawl. Within minutes, as she refused to answer questions, it was clear there was to be no apology and precious little new information about Victoria's death in February 1999.

No light was shed on how the child's head and face had been scalded, how she had been beaten with a bicycle chain, starved, kept for days wrapped in a bin liner, lying in her own excrement in a freezing cold bathroom. And the question of why there were 128 separate bruises, burns and belt marks on her dead body was dealt with only by the creation of a crass conspiracy theory: The corpse had been switched and pictures of the injuries faked, she alleged.

Raising her voice, she oscillated between poor English and, through an interpreter, her native French. "I'm no monster," she yelled. "I am innocent. I love children. J'adore les enfants!"

Kouao, Victoria's great aunt, had been entrusted with the youngster in 1997 by the parents, Berthe Amoissi and Francis Climbie, who hoped that sending their daughter from their home in the Ivory Coast to Europe might lead to a good education. But Kouao never sent Victoria to school. Instead, she used her as a "daughter" to claim benefits. Within two years, the child was taken to St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, west London, cold, battered, emaciated and unconscious. Police, social workers and medical staff had all failed to heed apparently obvious warning signs.

When, last year, Kouao and her boyfriend, Carl Manning, 27, were jailed for her murder, she insisted she was innocent, claiming Victoria had inflicted marks on herself while scratching a scabies infection. Manning has admitted his culpability and plans to give evidence tomorrow by videolink. But yesterday, Kouao's insistence on her innocence continued. The inquiry's counsel, Neil Garnham QC, tried repeatedly to make her answer questions, but she shouted him down and refused to co-operate.

Asked by him to confirm she was serving a life sentence, she replied: "Unfortunately, yes, and I should not be. I have not done anything to be in prison. Contrary to what everybody believes, I did not do what I have been accused of doing ... I am treated as a monster, as guilty, and this is most unfair I am a respectable person. I never did wrong in my life. I never put my feet inside a police station before this case ... I am a lady."

After continuing to ignore direct questions, she was told by Mr Garnham that the inquiry had the power to order her to answer. But she was unfazed. "I don't care if you give me 100 years more. I am a lifer for something I never did. I am very upset but if I came here, I said I would come if I can help some little boys or girls ..."

In spite of the fact that the inquiry has heard evidence to show that social workers missed or ignored warning signs and did not follow up reports that Victoria was being mistreated, Kouao insisted that the social workers found nothing wrong because everything at the tiny flat she shared with Manning in Tottenham, north London, had been fine.

Instead, she said doctors at St Mary's had killed Victoria when she took her there after becoming concerned the girl had not eaten for three days. Members of her church, she said, told her that, as well as incontinence, there were signs Victoria was possessed by evil spirits.

"They [the doctors] made her have an injection and she gets epilepsy there on the bed," she shouted. "The bed was making bump, bump, bump. The doctor asked if she'd got epilepsy and I said no, she did not get epilepsy ... It is the medication ... the medication was too high for her small heart and people are there to [blame] me to make me become a monster.

"I am a very good mum. I have children and grandchildren. I know how to care for children. I have proof I was loving that small girl. Why do they put her burn pictures in the newspaper. I am the one burning her? So now the people when they look at the newspaper, they say look what she did to that little girl."

She then went on to suggest the body with the 128 wounds might not have been Victoria's. It might, she argued, have been swapped by the doctors who killed her. "When I saw her pictures, I felt, I thought to myself, this is not my little girl's body," she said. "They change everything when she enter the hospital."

It was a display of rank self-justification and self-pity. All the while, sitting only a few feet away, Victoria's parents listened to an instant translation by a court-appointed interpreter, sometimes nodding gently but maintaining their composure, even when Kouao turned her hatred on them.

Claiming, wrongly, that she had adopted Victoria, she questioned the need for the police to have gone to the Ivory Coast during their investigations. "The police know they are the natural parents. It is not necessary to pay their ticket to make them go, pay their ticket here. There are a lot of English children here need money to save their life and you spoil that money to pay their ticket to go to Africa and stay in expensive hotel. All this to show they are the natural parents. Why? They did not love their little girl like I did. I was loving her more than her parents."

Afterwards, the parents' lawyer, Imran Khan, said Kouao's demeanour made it even more difficult to understand how social workers had failed to identify her as a danger to Victoria.

Mr Climbie said: "We had hoped to learn a lot from her but, unfortunately, she has not come with something that can assist the inquiry. She has not apologised at all or even shown any kind of sensitivity towards us."

Displaying a degree of dignity that contrasted starkly with Kouao's behaviour, Victoria's mother nevertheless appeared exasperated. "It has been extremely difficult," she said. "I have not much remorse for Marie Therese, not so much because of the crime she has committed as for the lies she has told and continues to tell.

"She keeps arguing that she did not kill my child. If that is true, I have a question for her: 'Where is my daughter?'"