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Key witnesses to detainee death to be deported before they can testify as Home Office accused of ‘obscuring access to justice’

‘They are fixing it up the way they want it. They’re trying to remove the witnesses. It should not be allowed. I want to tell Carlington’s wife and his little kids the truth’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 05 February 2019 13:37 GMT
Why is the Home Office getting so many immigration decisions wrong?

The Home Office has been accused of “obscuring access to justice” after it emerged two key witnesses in the inquest into the death of an immigration detainee are due to be imminently deported.

Around 50 people are set to be removed from the UK on Wednesday on the first charter flight to Jamaica since the Windrush scandal erupted, in what campaigners described as a “slap in the face” for Britain’s Caribbean community.

It has now emerged that two of the men due to be on the flight are key witnesses in the inquest into the death of Carlington Spencer, a 38-year-old Jamaican man who died in Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre, Lincolnshire, in 2017.

On Monday, the coroner for Lincolnshire issued a summons for Christopher Richards, 47, and Joseph Nembhard, 37, to attend a pre-inquest review on 11 March. But the Home Office has not indicated it will halt their deportation so they can attend.

The two men told The Independent they believed the Home Office was intentionally trying to move witnesses ahead of the inquest into the death of their friend. They said they had “strong evidence” that his death could have been prevented.

Mr Richards, who has been in the UK for 21 years and has a partner and four British children, said: “They’re tampering with witnesses. I’m 120 per cent sure that they’re trying to get rid of us because of this case against the Home Office. They’re interfering.”

The 47-year-old, who was convicted of assault in 2010 for which he spent 14 months in prison, and was detained and issued the deportation notice last week, said: “They are fixing it up the way they want it. They’re trying to remove the witnesses. It should not be allowed.

“I want to tell Carlington’s wife and his little kids the truth. Our case against them is very strong. We took notes and recorded stuff.”

Mr Richards’ solicitor, Imogen Townley of Wilson Solicitors LLP, said that as the Home Office had not confirmed that they had deferred his removal following the witness summons from the coroner, she had been forced to take the “extreme” measure of lodging an application for judicial review to the High Court.

She said the Home Office had known Mr Richards was a potential witness “for months” yet still listed him for deportation on the charter flight, in a move that “risked obscuring access to justice”.

“The Home Office should be proactively investigating how Mr Spencer died at Morton Hall. They are the public body alleged to have caused or contributed to his death, and yet instead of taking this positive proactive role in investigating, they are bundling the witnesses off on a secretive charter flight,” she said.

“The worst thing about it is that it indicates that they’re not committed to the inquest and to ensuring justice for Carlington Spencer’s family. It’s a breach of the right to life which states that deaths must be properly investigated.

“Detention centres are incredibly closed environments, and the fact that there are detainees who are able and willing to speak and give evidence to the coroner is something that we benefit from and we shouldn’t be trying to silence them and prevent them giving their testimony.”

The other witness, Mr Nembhard, who moved to the UK from Jamaica at the age of 18 and has a wife who is 23 weeks pregnant, as well as a four-year-old daughter, said he felt he was being “silenced” by the Home Office.

“They are suggesting that if I go to Jamaica I can take part over the internet. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but between now and then is the Home Office going to guarantee I’ll still be alive, or that they’ll be able to find me?” he said.

“When you’re in a country where life is hard, it’s easy to lose your phone, to lose your contacts.

“I’m being silenced. They are quickly trying to get me on the flight. It’s because we wrote down everything that happened and sent it to the relevant authorities.”

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, which supports families of people who have died in custody, said it was “alarming” that inquest witnesses were at risk of being deported.

“Obstructing key witnesses from giving evidence significantly undermines the investigative function of the inquest to get to the truth and expose any wrongdoing,” she said.

“The Home Office and other persons responsible for Carlington’s care must be effectively scrutinised and held accountable for future deaths to be prevented. We have to question whether this is an attempt to frustrate the inquest process.”

When asked whether they would prevent the two witnesses from being deported, a Home Office spokesperson said it did not comment on individual cases.

“It is only right that we seek to deport foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality by committing crimes in the UK,” the spokesperson said. “This ensures we keep the public safe. All individuals on this charter flight are serious criminals.”

The charter flight to Jamaica has been met with outrage from politicians who said it was an “insult” to Windrush citizens.

All of those set to be removed on the flight are said to have criminal convictions, but all have served their sentences in UK jails and campaigners argue that their removal – which for many means returning alone to a country they left as young children – constitutes a “brutal double punishment”.

Information on those facing removal, gathered by campaign group Movement for Justice, indicates that seven of them came to the UK as children, eight have British-born children, and 11 have relatives in the Windrush generation.

One woman set to be removed is said to be a grandmother to 10 British children, while another deportee reportedly has a grandfather who served in the British army.

The last charter flight to Jamaica was in March 2017. Another was scheduled to leave last April, days after the Windrush scandal broke, with a 63-year-old grandmother among the deportees, but it was cancelled for reasons the Home Office did not disclose.

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