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10 Nov, 2020 14:27

Ongoing legal battle over 2005 UK police killing brings to light covert op to smear victim justice campaigns

Ongoing legal battle over 2005 UK police killing brings to light covert op to smear victim justice campaigns

On July 22, 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes was executed by armed police on a London Underground train. He was quickly found innocent, but his family’s fight for justice goes on, exposing police efforts to dodge responsibility.

Due to a litany of catastrophic blunders and miscommunications by senior officials and officers on-the-ground, he’d been wrongly identified as one of the fugitives involved in a string of failed suicide bombings the previous day.

Followed by a team of plainclothes police from his home to nearby Stockwell Underground station, despite clear orders from Metropolitan Police ‘Gold Command’ he be apprehended, Jean Charles was shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder at close range in an underground train carriage. His body was said to be “unrecognizable” afterwards.

Lying squad

In the immediate aftermath, confusion and hysteria abounded, thanks largely to contradictory witness accounts and numerous “off-record” briefings from police being eagerly and uncritically amplified and speculated upon over and again by the mainstream media.

The day after his killing, it was fully established that Jean Charles hadn’t been a bombing suspect, and was in fact entirely innocent. Yet news outlets seemed oddly determined to imply he wasn’t entirely guiltless.

It was widely reported that he’d been an illegal immigrant, wires had been trailing from his rucksack, he’d been acting dubiously, fled from police after being challenged, vaulted the station ticket barriers, and refused to stop running despite shouted demands from officers.

All of these stories were entirely untrue, and widely acknowledged to be false over the course of subsequent months, but these impressions endure to this day in the minds of many. Suspiciously, the stories all seemed purpose-built to cast doubt on Jean Charles’ actions and character, and in the process mitigate the seriousness of the police’s fatal errors.

A subsequent investigation of Jean Charles’ killing by the then-Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) specifically examined the question of how these lies entered the public domain.

It determined that no officer had knowingly fed disinformation to the press, but somewhat contradictorily, concluded that once officials knew Jean Charles was innocent the morning of July 23, 2005, “they should have refrained from publicly discussing the shooting until… the facts had been fully established.”

“Whilst [police] admitted to having made a tragic mistake they continued to try to justify the shooting by referring to de Menezes’ own actions and clothing,” the IPCC added.

The same probe concluded none of the officers involved would face disciplinary charges, while criticising the Metropolitan Police’s command structure. As of November 2020, no one has ever been criminally prosecuted for their actions on that fateful day.

Without knowledge or consent

Jean Charles’ family have never given up their quest for British police to be held accountable for his killing. In August 2005, they launched a campaign, Justice4Jean, calling for a public inquiry into his “unlawful killing.”

Shockingly, in 2014 they were contacted by representatives of Operation Herne, which was investigating the activities of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), a now-defunct covert unit of Special Branch, Britain’s elite national security police force. They were told information about them and their campaign had been inappropriately gathered by undercover operatives.

Among them was Patricia Armani Da Silva, Jean Charles’ first cousin and flatmate, who’d played a prominent role in Justice4Jean since its foundation. At a subsequent meeting with Herne investigators, she and other family members were shown five heavily redacted intelligence reports. The documents recorded covertly obtained information about individuals connected with the campaign and its meetings. For reasons unclear, the details gathered included the family’s political views.

In October 2015, Patricia was granted core participant status in the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), established by then-home secretary Theresa May to investigate numerous controversies surrounding the British state’s use of clandestine operatives.

Despite offering to actively participate with the investigation and two judicial reviews into her surveillance, in 2020 Patricia remains entirely in the dark as to why she, her relatives, and their campaign, were spied on by police. Now the UCPI has finally begun hearing evidence, and an opening statement on her behalf was read to the Inquiry on November 9 by Phillipa Kaufmann QC.

She outlined the immensely distressing impact mendacious media allegations had on Jean Charles’ family at the time, as they knew it highly unlikely their law-abiding, respectable son could have done anything wrong. She also noted they often relive the pain of the dark, harrowing period following his death, as they still encounter those bogus allegations, and are frequently forced to counter erroneous perceptions that Jean Charles in some way contributed to his own killing.

Moreover though, Kaufmann made it clear that the family are adamant police were fundamental to the dissemination of these stories, and continued to perfidiously pump discrediting disinformation about Jean Charles into the public domain long after he was so brutally slain.

Also on rt.com ‘Rather than catch my son’s killers, the police spied on us. People of colour don’t get justice, cops don’t think we deserve it’

For example, at the start of 2006, it was widely reported that a woman had approached police and claimed a man bearing a “striking resemblance” to Jean Charles had sexually assaulted her in a hotel room on New Year’s Eve 2002 in West London. After initially refusing, his family consented to a blood sample being taken from Jean Charles’ autopsy for forensic tests, and in April that year, Scotland Yard announced he’d been fully exonerated.

Strikingly, Kaufmann revealed that in March 2006, Patricia’s solicitor Harriet Wistrich received a telephone call from DI Paul Settle informing her that an article detailing the woman’s allegations would soon be published by the Sunday Mirror. Moreover, Wistrich clearly recalls that Settle “gave the unambiguous impression” the article was a result of a police leak.

The matter was investigated by the Metropolitan Police Service’s Directorate of Professional Standards, under the supervision of the IPCC. Settle denied having suggested the information was leaked by police, and the probe halted after concluding the number of people who knew of the allegations, including those outside the police, meant further investigation was unlikely to identify its source.

Undermining campaigning efforts

To say the least, Jean Charles’ relatives well understand the critical role that information and disinformation play in shaping public narratives about police action.

It’s in this context that undercover surveillance of the family justice campaign gains an even more sinister dimension. Illicitly obtained private information about them could easily be weaponised to discredit them and undermine their battle, in the same way disinformation served to discredit Jean Charles and by implication exonerate police.

In all, undercover officers spied on at least 18 family justice campaigns between 1968 and 2011. Such a profusion suggests a clear pattern of behaviour, a pattern in turn plausibly influenced by established internal policy. However, police consistently seek to characterise surveillance of justice campaigns as mere ‘collateral intrusion’ – inadvertent and unintentional intelligence gathering by covert operatives investigating individuals involved, rather than direct and deliberate targeting of grieving relatives themselves.

Families are deeply sceptical of this explanation, particularly in light of the revelations of former undercover officer Peter Francis, who as ‘Pete Black’ infiltrated 12 separate justice campaigns between 1993 and 1997. In 2010, under the alias ‘Officer A’, he said his presence in these groups was specifically intended to make the truth they sought “harder to obtain,” as part of a wider wrecking tendency on the part of SDS. Once the unit infiltrated an organisation, it was “effectively finished,” he claims.

In later years, Francis identified himself publicly, and shed further light on his undercover activities, particularly in regard to the Stephen Lawrence justice campaign, set up after the South London teenager was murdered in a cold-blooded racist attack. He alleged he was specifically tasked with unearthing incriminating information on Stephen’s parents and friends, which could halt their crusade in its tracks.

“Had I… found anything detrimental, the police using the media would’ve used that information to smear the family. My superiors were after any intelligence of that order. That was made clear to me. The Lawrences weren’t unique in this. I suggest journalists read some of the information leaked to the press at the time about these campaigns and seriously question where they came from and why,” he has claimed.

Kaufmann said that for Patricia, there was a “chilling parallel” between the disinformation about her cousin perpetuated in public, and Francis’ accounts of seeking out dishonouring dirt at his superiors’ behest.

While an individual spied-upon campaign may not be able to prove particular information was disseminated as part of a deliberate police strategy to smear them, if this is provably a common experience across many such groups, then defences of accidental error, or denial of attribution, on the part of the police by definition become very difficult to maintain.

“The inquiry is asked to scrutinise very carefully, with a penetrating sceptical gaze, the purported explanation advanced by the [police] for undercover reporting on justice campaigns… Patricia asks the inquiry to seek out the evidence of those involved in the campaigns and consider whether there are common aspects of their experiences which call into question those denials,” Kauffman concluded.

Isolated examples of disinformation about victims of police misconduct circulated by news outlets may be dismissed as perverse mishaps, the result of misunderstandings, breakdowns in communication, overzealous officials carelessly hypothesising beyond available evidence. Repeated instances of information on these groups and their members being secretly obtained and committed to internal police documents raise obvious questions over ulterior motives and ultimate objectives.

Patricia has waited over 15 years for justice in respect of Jean Charles’ killing, and over six to learn the truth about the police surveillance of her and her family. She’s now forced to wait even longer to see whether the UCPI delivers the answers she so deserves. Inquiry hearings related to police undercover activities between 1993 and 2007 are only expected to commence in the first half of 2023. 

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