Surjit Singh Chhokar murder: 'Scotland's Stephen Lawrence' case reopened after changes in double jeopardy laws

 

Jonathan Brown
Saturday 03 May 2014 06:16
Waiter Surjit Singh Chhokar was stabbed to death on his way home from work in 1998
Waiter Surjit Singh Chhokar was stabbed to death on his way home from work in 1998

Three men are facing the prospect of retrial under double jeopardy laws for one of Scotland’s most controversial unsolved killings.

Sikh waiter Surjit Singh Chhokar was stabbed to death in 1998 aged 32, as he returned home from work in Overtown, North Lanarkshire. Three men were arrested and tried in two separate trials although no one was ever convicted of Mr Chhokar’s murder.

The handling of the case – which has been described as Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence - led to a long campaign for justice by the victim’s family.

It resulted in two inquiries which found damning evidence of mistakes and led to an acceptance by the then-Lord Advocate of institutional racism in the police and prosecution services.

Today, the current Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC announced that he has applied to the High Court to reopen the case. He is seeking to have the acquittal of Ronnie Coulter, Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery set aside to make way for a new murder prosecution to commence.

A new trial was made possible following the introduction of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act the previous year which overturned the 800-year-old principle that someone cannot stand trial twice for the same alleged crime.

The decision to seek to have the original acquittals quashed was made public following a meeting between Mr Chhokar’s family and the Lord Advocate. The family’s solicitor Aamer Anwar said there remained “significant legal hurdles” to be overcome.

He said it had been “15 long years” since the tragedy.

“People may have forgotten his name but his family never gave up hope for justice. The Chhokar family are grateful to the Crown Office and Police Scotland for their determination and support. Today is an important step but the Chhokar family will only ever be at peace when there is justice,” he added.

Former Justice Minister Jim Wallace and then-Lord Advocate Colin Boyd QC announced two independent inquiries into the case which led to profound changes in the Scottish criminal justice system.

In 2001 Mr Boyd told MSPs that the Chhokar family had been “failed” by the authorities.

In separate reports Sir Anthony Campbell, Justice of the Supreme Court of Northern Ireland, found “clear defects” in the prosecution process, while advocate Dr Raj Jandoo, deputy chair of the Scottish Executive's Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Steering Group, reviewed how prosecutors liaised with the victim's family.

Dr Jandoo concluded that institutional racism by the police, the Procurator Fiscal and the Crown Office had played a part in the treatment of the family particularly in regard of Sikh custom.

The family was not informed of proceedings and left without translation services, it was found. They unsuccessfully campaigned for a public inquiry into the case.

It is only the second time that the Crown Office has sought to reopen a criminal investigation using changes to the principle of double jeopardy.

Last month the High Court granted permission to re-indict Angus Sinclair for the so-called World’s End murders of two women who disappeared after leaving an Edinburgh pub in 1977.

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