Police told to reopen Chhokar case

 

A police force has been told to reopen the investigation into the murder of an Asian man more than 13 years ago.

The family of Surjit Singh Chhokar met with Scotland's top law officer today who confirmed Strathclyde Police have been instructed to carry out further investigations into his murder under double jeopardy legislation.

Mr Chhokar was stabbed to death outside the home he shared with his girlfriend in Overtown, Lanarkshire, on November 4 1998.

The murder, which has been dubbed "Scotland's Stephen Lawrence", sparked controversy after the failure of authorities to secure a conviction for his killing despite the arrests of three men and two subsequent trials.

Today, the waiter's family met Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland and the Solicitor General Lesley Thomson to ask for a reopening of the case.

Reform of Scotland's centuries-old double jeopardy law, which came into force at the end of last year, means the men originally accused of the murder could face a retrial.

Speaking after the meeting at the Crown Office in Edinburgh, the family's solicitor said there are "significant hurdles to cross".

Aamer Anwar, speaking on behalf of the Chhokar family, said: "Thirteen years ago as Surjit's family began their struggle for justice, every step required their sacrifice and suffering.

"Surjit was described as Scotland's Stephen Lawrence, so when two of Stephen's killers finally faced justice because of the double jeopardy law, the Chhokar family dared to hope that that justice was still possible for Surjit.

"The Lord Advocate and Solicitor General have taken important steps today, but there are significant hurdles to cross. The family believe there is a determination to fight for justice."

He added: "Today is a second chance for the Crown Office to do the right thing but also to show there has been a positive change 13 years later.

"Surjit's family will only ever be at peace when there is justice. It is now up to the Lord Advocate and Strathclyde Police to do all that is possible."

The Solicitor General said: "The prosecution service is committed to make use of the powers under the new Double Jeopardy legislation.

"The Scottish Parliament, in passing the Act, has clearly stated that the passage of time since an acquittal should be no protection for those for whom there is new and compelling evidence of guilt.

"We hope that our commitment to the new legislation will give reassurance to victims and their families."

Last week, Mr Chhokar's sister, Manjit Sangha, told a press conference at the Scottish Parliament of her hopes the change in the law would mean that the murder investigation could be reopened.

She said: "People will have forgotten Surjit's name, yet the darkness of his murder still shadows our lives.

"All that we have ever asked for is justice. The recent changes in the law once again gave us hope."

Two official inquiries were ordered in the wake of the original proceedings.

Following the publication of the reports in 2001, Colin Boyd QC, who was Lord Advocate at the time, said the Chhokar family had been failed by the police and prosecution services.

The Crown Office also confirmed other cases are under review by the Solicitor General which may be able to be prosecuted under double jeopardy legislation.

It said it was "actively reviewing and examining potential cases as part of a programme under the new legislation".

The Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act 2011 came into force on November 28, setting out five new conditions where an accused could be retried for a crime they were previously acquitted of.

These include if evidence later emerges that an acquitted person has admitted to committing the offence, or where the original acquittal was "tainted", possibly by witness or juror intimidation.

Under the legislation, a retrial could occur if "compelling new evidence" emerges in cases initially tried in the High Court or where prior proceedings were legally null.

The prosecution of a person on a more serious charge if the victim has died after the original trial is also included in the measures.

Humza Yousaf, the SNP MSP for Glasgow, said: "I welcome today's announcement from the Crown Office, it is a big step in the fight for justice for Mr Chhokar and his family.

"I have no doubt that Strathclyde Police will work tirelessly on the investigation. However, we need members of the public to do their bit in aid of the investigation. If you have any information you think may be useful, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, please do contact Strathclyde Police who can deal with people on a confidential basis.

"For 13 years the Chhokar family has been searching for answers and every time they have left disappointed and despondent.

"By opening up an investigation into the murder I am hopeful that justice for Surjit Singh Chhokar and his family is closer than it has ever been before."

PA

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