Last year, a young man of Somali heritage died after being taken into police custody in Wales. It is a familiar story: he sustained injuries, but the police deny excessive force. Raoul Walawalker, a writer for Immigration News – which part of an organisation of UK and Ireland immigration lawyers – interviews an activist who is helping the family.
This is a challenging time for the family of Mohamud Hassan, the 24-year-old who was taken into custody one night by South Wales police and died at home later the next day after being released.
Hassan was a father-to-be when he died five months ago. His child died two months ago, on the same day she was born, and his family remain locked in what could be a long struggle to learn the truth of what happened to him.
Despite a lockdown in January, his death sparked protests in Cardiff amid angry accusations of a police cover-up and calls for the immediate release of all camera footage of his arrest and detention.
The protests continued for a few days, but abated partly due to stricter lockdown laws, and because the matter was handed to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), who are now in the fifth month of an investigation. Frustratingly, the IOPC has maintained that it won’t make any of the footage public.
The investigation had been prompted by two different accounts of Hassan’s death. According to South Wales police, his death was “sudden and unexplained” with “no signs of misconduct or excessive force”. But family and friends had described signs indicating he’d been assaulted (bruising, blood stains) and maintain he said he’d be beaten up by the police.
In the last months, information from the probe has been dripping out and leading to more questions. The alleged poor manner of its delivery by the IOPC was unhelpful too, according to Lee Jasper, a well-known human rights activist involved with supporting the family, who also helped break the story.
“It went badly in the beginning, lack of communication, lack of empathy,” Jasper tells me. “They were treated in a paternalistic way and provided with minimum information.” He says that it’s since the family’s legal representative, Hilary Brown, became involved in the campaign that they are being treated in a more timely, effective and empathic manner.
He adds that these particular problems in dealing with the IOPC may be more specific to Wales than elsewhere. In London they seem “more versed in deaths in custody, and sensitivity towards families.”
A protest calling for justice for Hassan, held outside Cardiff Bay Police Station in Butetown Source: No Swan So Fine via Wikimedia Commons
But issues of race in the area aren’t new, Jasper points out. “The history of the South Wales police is hardly one that inspires confidence in dealing with [BME] individuals.”
In 2019, the force investigated the death of 13-year-old Christopher Kapessa, whose body was found in a river, concluding that there were no suspicious circumstances. His family was also represented by Brown, who complained that only four of the 14 young people at the scene had been interviewed. The family went on to accuse the police and Crown Prosecution service of institutional racism.
This year, the IOPC also commenced an investigation into the death of Moyied Bashir in Newport, whose family claimed he died as a result of being tied up by police.
So far, the Mohamud Hassan investigation has offered more questions than answers. The post-mortem result pronounced Hassan’s cause of death as “unascertained”. Last week, a sixth police officer was also issued a “notice of misconduct” – meaning “under investigation but not accused of wrongdoing”. And, as of March, a new narrative of events from the night of arrest has emerged from police officers – who have now stated that the disturbance call was a call to a “fight” between five men arriving at Hassan’s address and five within, with some displaying injuries when police arrived.
The family and their lawyer have called for the six officers to be suspended. The IOPC has rejected these calls.
Meanwhile, Jasper sounds forthright in his belief that death of Hassan is a cover-up by South Wales Police, calling their most recent account of events a “piece of fiction”.
Regarding the “inconclusive” cause of death in the post-mortem, he references the pathology report and aspects corroborating statements about Hassan’s appearance before death.
“The pathology report found bruising to the elbows and knees, they found a split lip consistent with being punched or slapped,” he says. Toxicology reports are still awaited, he notes, but Jasper says that Hassan had no underlying health conditions.
If the family is unsatisfied with the result of the investigation, Jasper believes that the campaign could continue for years.
“Deaths in custody campaigns […] can take three years to come to a conclusion at the earliest, averaging more around seven years. We’ve known cases of 15 to 20 years.”
He notes that this is part of the reason he’s calling for reform of an inquest system that he says is stacked against victims, and an acknowledgment that institutional and systemic racism are still huge issues in British policing.
In a statement, South Wales Police said: “The force continues to fully co-operate with the IOPC investigation and has provided them with information and material, including CCTV footage and body-worn video. We acknowledge the impact Mr Hassan’s death has had on his family, friends and the wider community. Our thoughts and condolences continue to be with them."