Jimmy Mubenga’s Death

By Lara Pawson


An Angolan man was unlawfully killed while being deported from Britain to Angola on October 12, 2010, a jury in London has found yesterday. The jury said that 46 year-old Jimmy Kelenda Mubenga suffered a cardio-respiratory collapse as a result of restraint by three G4S security guards on board a British Airways aircraft at Heathrow airport.

In their verdict, which took four days of deliberations, the jury found that, “Mr Mubenga was pushed or held down by one or more of the guards causing his breathing to be impeded. We find they were using unreasonable force and acting in an unlawful manner. The fact that Mr Mubenga was pushed or held down, or a combination of the two, was a significant, that is more than minimal, cause of death.”

“We believe the guards would have known that their actions would have caused Mr Mubenga harm if not serious harm. We find that Mr Mubenga died in his seat at approximately 20:24 and before the paramedics boarded the aircraft at 20:38.”

Speaking outside Isleworth Crown Court at the end of the nine-and-a-half week inquest, Adrienne Makenda Kambana, Mubenga’s widow and the mother of their five children, said, “I thank the jury for bringing back a good verdict… The last eight weeks have been hard, very hard… But I now know the truth… I feel like Jimmy’s resting in peace now.”

Mubenga was subjected to a deportation order after he was convicted of assault — actual bodily harm — in April 2006 and given a two-year prison sentence. He had no other convictions, but British law stipulates that an immigrant’s right to “indefinite leave to remain” can be revoked if he or she is convicted of a crime resulting in a custodial sentence. So from prison, apart from one period in which he was released on bail, Mubenga was held in a series of detention centres. His final stay in detention began on September 27, 2010, at Brook House, an immigration removal centre described as “fundamentally unsafe” in a report by the chief inspector of prisons in July that year.

On the afternoon of October 12, Mubenga was escorted from Brook House to Heathrow airport by three custody officers employed by the British private security company G4S. Although Mubenga was upset about his deportation — he was seen crying earlier that day — up to this point, he did not resist the removal process. It was only after boarding the British Airways flight 77 at approximately 19:10 that trouble developed.

Conflicting accounts of Mubenga’s final hour

Mubenga was given permission by the guards to use the toilet at the back of the plane. According to Stuart Tribelnig, the senior G4S escort, after Mubenga came out of the toilet, he lunged at Tribelnig, ripping open the guard’s shirt and pushing him up the aisle. A struggle ensued between Mubenga, Tribelnig and a second guard, Terence Hughes. Eventually, the two escorts managed to gain control of the situation and, with the help of the third guard, Colin Kaler, they hand-cuffed Mubenga behind his back — the “rear stack position” — and managed to seat him in the back row of the plane. Although the guards gave slightly differing accounts about who did precisely what, the deputy coroner in charge of the inquest, Karon Monaghan, advised the jury that the force used up until this point was probably “reasonable”. Once Mubenga was seated however, the facts of what happened and when become less clear, with witness accounts — including over 30 passengers and the British Airways cabin crew — often contradicting those of the three G4S guards.

According to the guards, once seated, Mubenga continued to struggle. Even after his seat belt was fixed, he was screaming and kicking and trying to stand up. By now he had a guard seated either side of him — Hughes and Kaler — and a third, Tribelnig, kneeling on the chair in the row in front, facing him. Because he was rear-cuffed, Mubenga could not sit up straight and was bent slightly forward. Tribelnig placed a small pillow over the television screen in front of Mubenga in order, he said, to protect his head should he try to headbutt the screen, and also to protect the screen itself. Tribelnig told the court that Mubenga was “beginning to thrash around wildly”. His two colleagues were trying to “de-escalate” the situation by talking to Mubenga. But the deportee continued to struggle and, according to the guards, was leaning forward and down in an attempt to try and bite Hughes. Kaler says he heard Mubenga say, “I’m going to fucking bite you.” No one else on the plane recalls hearing the deportee swear at any point. Kaler also remembers Mubenga saying, “You’re going to kill me” and “I’m going to die.” In court, Hughes said he could not remember Mubenga shouting anything at all. When questioned however, he accepted that in a statement to the police in October 2010, he had said he heard Mubenga shout “They’re killing me” and “I’m going to my death.”

Similarly, in a statement to the police in October 2010, Tribelnig said that he had held Mubenga’s head in an attempt to control him. In court, however, he said that throughout the entire period on flight 77, he never once took hold of his head or tried to push it down. He said that Mubenga had been pushing his own head down. At certain points, said Tribelnig, Mubenga’s head was so low it was below the level of his heart — a potentially fatal position to be in while seated. Tribelnig said that he ordered his two colleagues to “get him back up”. In court, Hughes corroborated Tribelnig’s claim, stating that he never saw him put any pressure on Mubenga’s head. Both Hughes and Kaler also said that they tried to pull Mubenga upright, but failed. Kaler said there was nothing preventing Mubenga from sitting upright. He said Mubenga was strong and kept pulling himself back down.

Several crew members, however, said they were unable to see Mubenga and had assumed that the guards were on top of him. Some crew said they had seen the guard seated in front of Mubenga — Tribelnig — leaning over his seat and either holding down Mubenga’s head or pushing it down. Some recalled seeing at least one of Tribelnig’s hands on the deportee’s head. They also recalled seeing the two guards either side of Mubenga pushing him down. Several members of the crew heard Mubenga howling, screaming and shouting out phrases including, “You’re killing me.” One crew member said he heard Mubenga saying he could not breathe, to which a guard had responded, “Yes you can.” Although the guards admitted to hearing Mubenga shouting, none of them recall hearing him say that he could not breathe.

Several passengers on board the plane also recalled hearing Mubenga complaining that he could not breathe. They heard him saying things including: “You’re killing me”, “I don’t want to go, they’ll kill me”, and “Help, help, you’re trying to kill me.” One passenger said she heard Mubenga shouting for help at least twenty times. Another said she heard him ask for help and then say, “You’re watching them kill me. How can you just sit there?”

In terms of what the passengers saw, the picture appears to be quite consistent. One said he saw Mubenga in a head-lock and later, that his voice became muffled as if he was shouting towards the floor. Several passengers said they saw Tribelnig either holding Mubenga’s head down, or leaning over his seat and pushing his weight or his hand down on Mubenga. A number of passengers said that they had only been able to see the guards and that Mubenga was hidden from view, making them think that the three escorts were either pushing or holding him down. One passenger recalled seeing a white man punch Mubenga. Another said he saw Mubenga with his head in his lap with a guard leaning over him. Others said they saw Mubenga trying to sit upright but being pushed back down by one or more of the guards. Several said that after a while they could only hear Mubenga moaning and grunting, but not articulating any words. When he became quiet, several passengers said they assumed he had finally calmed down or gone to sleep.

The senior G4S escort, Tribelnig said that when the aircraft began to leave the stand, to start its journey towards the runway, Mubenga became quiet. He said that the deportee appeared to “give up.” Apparently, at certain points, Mubenga was either sitting upright with eyes and mouth open and a blank expression on his face, or was leaning forward and resting his head on the pillow. As the senior escort, Tribelnig decided to check Mubenga’s pulse. It was weak. His colleagues removed the handcuffs and sat him upright in his chair.

The jury heard that the plane pushed out of the stand at around 20:11. The G4S guards alerted the crew that something was wrong at approximately 20:20 hours, and the plane returned to the stand. Once the aircraft was stationary, paramedics came on board to administer first aid, including cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), at approximately 20:38 hours. According to yesterday’s findings by the jury, Mubenga was already dead by the time the paramedics arrived on board.

Medical evidence

Three highly experienced forensic pathologists — including one who was contracted to the British goverment’s Home Office — agree that Mubenga died from cardio-respiratory collapse due to restraint. On examination, he was found to have sustained a number of injuries, including: two broken ribs, bruising around the shoulders and neck consistent with either being pushed down or pushing up against something; and scleral haemorrhage to two parts of the eye, possibly indicating death by asphyxia. There were no injuries to suggest that Mubenga was, at any point, forced upright, as the guards claimed. Moreover, one of the doctors said that it would be impossible for a human being to remain bent over while impeding their own breathing because a reflex response would immediately see the individual come upright, or attempt to come upright.

Coming to terms with the death of her husband has been extremely difficult for Adrienne Makenda. One of the most harrowing aspects is that Mubenga was surrounded by so many people, both passengers and cabin crew, in the time leading up to his death. “He was neglected,” says Makenda. “What the witnesses said: they heard him asking for help. A lot of them did. But nobody helped. My question is, why? If someone had helped Jimmy he would be here today. Because they didn’t go to help: that’s why he’s not there.”

All British Airways cabin crew are trained in first aid. They are taught how to check a person for vital signs and how to provide emergency resuscitation as well as how to use a defibrillator, the life-saving machine that gives the heart an electric shock. The court heard that a defibrillator is carried on every British Airways flight. Yet, at no point on BA flight 77 on October 12, 2010, did any of the crew administer first aid to Mubenga, or think to get the defibrillator. It seems, at best, that the cabin crew did not realise how serious the situation was. Particularly galling for Mubenga’s family is to learn that the plane’s captain, when told of the spiralling tension at the back of the plane, commented that Mubenga “had probably just come out of RADA”, a reference to Britain’s most esteemed acting school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Racist messages on G4S guards’ phones

Other particularly harrowing evidence came from one of the guards, Hughes, whose mobile phone was found to contain about 65 text messages containing highly offensive racist material. In court, the coroner asked him to read out several of the texts, which included comments about immigrants, muslims, Asians and black people. Despite claiming that he “wouldn’t get involved in racist jokes,” Hughes admitted that he had sent some of the texts to other people. The senior escort, Tribelnig, also admitted to having racist text messages on his phone, which was seized by police. Both men said they either did not know how to delete the messages, or simply had not bothered.

All three guards were arrested “on suspicion of criminal offences” on October 18, 2010, six days after Mubenga’s death. In 2012 however, a senior advocate at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the guards for “gross negligence manslaughter.” The CPS said that conflicting witness accounts about the way the guards restrained Mubenga meant it could not be proved whether their actions amounted to more than a minimal cause of his death.

As a result of yesterday’s’s verdict, the case will automatically be referred back to the CPS. Mark Scott, a solicitor acting for the family said, “We will be seeking an urgent meeting with the director of public prosecutions, Kier Starmer.”

Many questions remain unanswered

Although the verdict is welcome news to Mubenga’s family, many questions relating to his death remain unanswered. Regarding the adequacy of the police investigation, why were the three G4S guards only arrested on October 18, 2010? As a matter of procedure, police should have taken them in for questioning immediately following Mubenga’s death. As a result of that delay, Hughes, Tribelnig and Kaler had at least five days to corroborate their story if they so wished. Moreover, when they wrote their “use of force” report — as all G4S escorts are required — they were allowed to do so together, in the same room. This provided them with another opportunity to cross-check and corroborate each other’s stories.

Likewise, why were G4S guards still using restraint methods that involved pushing someone’s head down whilst seated? Since 2003, concerns have been raised about restraint-related deaths. In April 2004, a 15 year-old boy, Gareth Myatt, died in custody while being restrained by G4S guards. The teenager had complained that he could not breathe, yet staff continued to restrain him with his head down. Other questions that G4S needs to answer include its employment of staff who are racist and who are happy to have 65 racially offensive text messages on their mobile phone. It is worth pointing out that G4S operates in 30 African countries, including Angola, where it has offices in Miramar, Luanda.

Mubenga’s historical link to Britain

For many British people, Mubenga’s deportation — if not his death — was deserved. Few people here believe that Britain has any debt to Angolans, or indeed any link to Angola at all. Few in Britain are aware of the fact that our country has a long history not simply with Angola, but specifically with the Lundas. According to his wife, Mubenga grew up in Cafunfo in Lunda Norte.

“From the 1920’s through to the 1990’s, Angola’s diamonds kept Britain at the centre of the diamond-trading universe,” says Chris Gordon, a London-based diamond analyst. And the diamonds that were so pivotal to Britain’s wealth and status in the twentieth century all come from the Lundas. Although, Diamang — the Companhia de Diamantes de Angola — was jointly owned by the Portuguese state as well as Belgian, British and United States interests, it was a very British business. Because Portugal lacked experience and technical expertise, the diamond mining company De Beers stepped into the breach. Founded in 1888 by the English businessman and champion of British colonialism Cecil Rhodes, De Beers was taken over in 1927 by German-born Ernest Oppenheimer, who became a London-based diamond broker at the age of 17, a British citizen in 1901 and was knighted by the British government in 1921. Thanks to these men, until the 1990’s, every diamond that was mined in the Lundas was sold in London.

Since Mubenga’s death, I have often reflected on the awful irony that a man from the Lundas, where private security companies mete out appalling cruelties day after day, died in London while in the care of one of our own private security companies. Yet he came to Britain in 1994 as an asylum seeker. Who would have imagined that the country in which he sought safety turned out to be the one where he would die? If there is to be any justice for Jimmy and the many other asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants who come to Britain, we must dig deep into our history, to expose what the academic Paul Gilroy called “Europe’s repressed, denied, and disavowed blackness… in the hope that a climate will eventually develop in which we will be able to find a hearing.”

Part of this article was first published in Open Democracy.