Prison Service blamed for death of inmate

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Zahid Mubarek might be alive today if the Prison Service had not missed 14 opportunities to save him from his racist, psychopathic cellmate, an inquiry heard yesterday.

The 19-year-old was beaten to death with a table leg by Robert Stewart on the day he was to be released from Feltham young offenders institution.

The prison officer who placed them in a cell together had no information about Stewart's violent history. A nurse who diagnosed him as a psychopath suggested no treatment was necessary. His repeatedly aggressive and racist letters were not intercepted and when he began to dismantle and make weapons out of the table in the cell days before the murder, officers failed to notice.

The catalogue of failures was revealed on the first day of an inquiry in London, chaired by Mr Justice Keith, into how Mubarek came to die in custody and whether it was as a result of incompetence or racism amongst the staff. The hearings, the first to be held into a racist killing in custody, have been compared to the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Mubarek's mother and father, Sajida and Amin - who have fought a four-year legal battle for the inquiry against Home Office recommendations - stood in the rain outside the hearing yesterday keeping a minute's silence. "This is more than an inquiry, it's an opportunity for the prison system to correct its mistakes," they said.

The inquiry is expected to hear evidence from relatives, denied by prison officers, that Mubarek, from Walthamstow in east London, had asked to be moved out of the cell.

Counsel for the inquiry, Nigel Giffin QC, described how Stewart beat Mr Mubarek in the early hours of 21 March 2000. The Asian teenager, who was serving three months for theft, died in hospital. Stewart is now serving life for his murder.

Stewart had 18 separate convictions for more than 70 individual offences. During his many periods in custody, he had set light to and flooded his cell, smeared excrement on the walls, covered himself in margarine and placed a noose around his neck. Most crucially the 19-year-old had been implicated in the murder of an inmate at another institution two years earlier. When his friend Morris Travis stabbed the inmate to death, it was suggested Stewart had passed him the knife and the pair had been talking about killing or taking people hostage. Travis was convicted of murder but Stewart escaped without charge.

Four months before he murdered Mubarek, Stewart was seen by a mental health nurse who diagnosed "a long-standing, deep-seated personality disorder" but recommended no further action.

Stewart the inquiry heard was a prolific writer of racist, violent letters. Less than a month before the murder, he wrote of making a Ku Klux Klan outfit and killing his "padmate" to get "shipped out" of Feltham.

Weeks before he was locked up with Mubarek, a prison officer came across one of these threatening letters and under the instruction of a senior officer - and contrary to laid-down procedures - returned the note to Stewart. She did, however, note that his post should be monitored. There is no evidence this was done.

The hearing was told that two inmates described seeing Stewart with a knife-like weapon, fashioned out of the cell table, two days before the murder.

Mr Giffin said there were five missed opportunities by the Prison Service, in six different establishments, to recognise the risk Stewart posed. He added: "I am going to suggest that at Feltham itself there may have been nine critical turning points when ... the tragedy could have been averted."

The hearing continues.