Focus: The Lawrence Inquiry - Please step forward, all you silent witnesses

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Manuel is in hiding. The South American-born Londoner has been driven out of his home after being beaten close to death by a gang of racist neighbours every bit as dangerous as that which killed Stephen Lawrence.

In the eyes of the six-strong gang which kicked and punched him about the head, chased him out of his house and wrecked his car, Manuel was a "Paki" whom they wanted dead.

The attack, which is currently before Scotland Yard's new Race and Violent Crime Task Force, might lead to the jailing of the gang - if only the key independent eyewitness were not so terrified of the gang's long criminal records and far-right tattoos that he has declined to give evidence against them without the offer of police protection, which has so far been refused.

In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, deep concerns are emerging that not enough is being done to encourage the witnesses on whom successful prosecutions of such offences normally depend.

"Police have to give greater consideration to the safety and welfare of witnesses," said Suresh Grover, an adviser to the Lawrence campaign and co-ordinator of the Monitoring Group, a London anti-racist organisation which is supporting Manuel. "Without witnesses there is no prosecution."

Since the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, there have been 20 other racist murders in Britain. Latest British Crime Survey figures record 382,000 racist offences in a year, at least 1,000 a day. Most go unpunished.

Two days before Christmas, Somalian student Fahran Mire was stamped to death in a residential street in the affluent north-west London suburb of Harrow. People in nearby homes heard a white woman shouting for help and looked out of the windows to see her having an argument with the 32- year-old refugee. Detective Chief Inspector Julian Headon, who is heading the Metropolitan Police inquiry into the murder, said: "Then a white man came along and kicked him to the ground and stamped on him, causing massive head injuries." The couple then walked off, leaving Mr Mire dying in the street.

As part of their appeal for witnesses, police issued leaflets to 14,000 addresses in the area. The exercise did not produce a single lead and so far the case remains unsolved. Det Ch Insp Headon does not blame local people for not being more responsive. "What you have seen is a savage act which has taken somebody's life and you are putting yourself in a position of confronting that man, either in court or at an identification parade," he said. "Your thoughts are, `What happens if he gets out and tries to find me?'."

Meanwhile, officers investigating the racist murder of black musician Michael Menson in 1997 are frustrated not just by early police mistakes in the inquiry but also by the fact that numerous witnesses who are known to have seen Michael around the time he was attacked have refused repeated appeals to come forward.

Chris Myant, a spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality, said that in spite of the findings of the Lawrence inquiry, the public could not simply blame the failure to catch racist thugs on the inadequacies of the police.

"It is the responsibility of everyone in the community to do what they can to bring to justice those who perpetrate acts of racial abuse," he said.

Any attempt to encourage witnesses to be more public spirited about coming forward was dealt a debilitating blow last week by the blunder of the Lawrence inquiry team in publishing the names of the people who gave information to police investigating the murder.

One south London mother, who was named as an informant, said: "If people think their names are going to be made public and put in the papers, there is no way they will help the police again."

The mistake coincided with the passage of the Youth and Criminal Evidence Bill through Parliament. It proposes new measures to allow people who feel threatened to give their evidence on videotape or from behind screens designed to protect their identity.

According to leading criminologist Professor Betsy Stanko of Brunel University, such protection is not enough. "You still have to walk to and from court and to go back to your neighbourhood afterwards," she said.

The fact that the Lawrence suspects are still able to move freely around their neighbourhood of Eltham, south-east London, has led to suggestions that the area, like its police force, suffers from ingrained racism.

But the one positive feature to emerge from the erroneous publication of the names of the Lawrence informants last week was that it showed just how many local people were prepared to come forward with information about the killing.

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