Poet Zephaniah leads fight for truth about how cousin died

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When Michael Powell started behaving oddly at his home in Birmingham late on 7 September, his family called the police, concerned about his welfare. It is a move that is likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Mr Powell, 38, a factory worker who had three children, died in custody within 90 minutes of the arrival of the police. The circumstances surrounding his death are now the subject of an independent investigation.

Yesterday, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, a cousin of Mr Powell, challenged Tony Blair to respond to a string of unanswered questions in relation to his death. The incident was raised by the poet in a newspaper article illustrating why he decided to refuse his appointment as an OBE. "In the past couple of months, I've been on Blair's doorstep a few times," he wrote. "I have begged him to come out and meet me; I have been longing for a conversation with him, but he won't come out.

"My cousin, Michael Powell, was arrested and taken to Thornhill Road police station in Birmingham where he died. Now, I know how he died. The whole of Birmingham knows how he died, but to get this article published and to be politically or journalistically correct, I have to say he died in suspicious circumstances. The police will not give us any answers.

"We have not seen or heard anything of all the reports and investigations we were told were going to take place. Now, all that my family can do is join with all the other families who have lost members while in custody because no one in power is listening to us. Come on Mr Blair, I can meet you any time. Let's talk about your Home Office. Let's talk about being tough on crime."

For Mr Powell's family and friends, the details of his death are unclear. It is known that police arrived after receiving a call from the family. Mr Powell was thought to have been standing outside on the road when he came into collision with a patrol car and was slightly injured.

Officers used CS gas and handcuffs to restrain him before he was escorted to the police station. It was there that he collapsed in his cell. He was pronounced dead at 2am at City Hospital in Birmingham. The Police Complaints Authority is investigating, with officers from Northamptonshire Police.

Tensions are high in the Birmingham area, with some claiming that the police may have deliberately mown down Mr Powell. There have been protests in the city, where Jamaican-born Zephaniah was raised. Two weeks ago, more than 500 people joined a demonstration calling for the suspension of the officers involved in Mr Powell's arrest.

His partner, Marcia Williams, and their children, were among those who marched from Wilton Street to Thornhill Road police station.

His mother, Claris Powell, laid flowers at the front of the police station and protesters waved banners with messages including, "Another death in police custody" and chanted: "No justice." Mr Powell's children, Rio, 13, and Delon, aged 10, held a banner which read "No more black deaths in custody". Ms Williams, 34, who led the march, said at the time: "I want answers. I want to know why Mikey died in police custody. We are hoping to raise awareness and hundreds of people have signed a petition. I want to know why Mikey was arrested so violently." A church leader appealed for calm in the days before Mr Powell's funeral, which was attended by hundreds of mourners. Bishop Derek Webley, chair of the Council for Black-led Churches, who paid tribute to Mr Powell during his funeral service at Aston's Holy Trinity Church, said: "A member of our community has lost his life in questionable circumstances and this has raised a lot of issues which need to be answered. I am calling the community to be patient."

An inquest into Mr Powell's case has been opened and adjourned but no cause of death has yet been established. At its opening in September, Birmingham's coroner, Aidan Cotter, imposed a six-month deadline for the inquest, and ordered that it take place in March 2004, with a pre-inquest date set for 9 December.

An initial post-mortem examination failed to find a cause of death but the pathologist said that Mr Powell's injuries, consistent with being struck by a car, were not of sufficient force to have killed him.

A Police Complaints Authority spokesman said investigators were working to resolve the case as quickly as possible but could not give a time scale for the case to be fully assessed. "Obviously, we are sensitive to the whole matter and are doing the best to expedite it. We are independent and not part of the political process at all so we cannot comment on Mr Zephaniah's remarks. The aim is that we get an accurate assessment of the circumstances leading to Mr Powell's death," he said.