A farcical trial and 13 years of racist abuse in jail - the story of Satpal Ram

The young Asian always insisted he killed in self-defence. Now he speaks out for the first time to Jay Rayner.

The Guardian: Saturday January 29 2000

Beneath Satpal Ram's right eye is a tight gash of scar tissue, the result, he says, of a beating he received at the hands of racist prison officers three years ago. On his wrists are the grooves left by the constant use of ratchet handcuffs, employed during the 59 transfers between penal institutions he has had to endure. These are merely the physical marks left by more than a decade inside the prison system; years he has served for a conviction which he and a growing band of supporters say is a gross - and racist - miscarriage of justice. The emotional scars doubtless run much deeper.

Ram's name may not be as familiar as that of Stephen Lawrence or Michael Menson, but to many who have followed his story it is every bit as symptomatic of an embedded racism within the criminal justice system as those more infamous cases.

Ram was convicted 13 years ago of a killing which he has always said was an act of self-defence against a racist attack - but which the court ruled was a straightforward case of murder. Since the conviction he has been shifted around the prison system on average once every three months and has spent a total of four years in solitary confinement - simply, he says, for proclaiming his innocence and refusing to submit to inhumane treatment.

'Racism is endemic within the prison system,' he told me when we met at Full Sutton maximum security prison outside York last week. 'Life for me revolves around trying to get through every day without becoming a statistic of another death in custody.'

He has never before been allowed to tell his side of the story. At his trial his barrister, who had misread a pathologist's report, told him a plea of self-defence was unsustainable and advised him not to give evidence. The judge at his failed appeal in 1995 also refused him the chance to speak. It has been left to pop groups like Primal Scream and the Asian Dub Foundation, to high-profile writers and comedians like Irvine Welsh and Sean Hughes, and to a welter of MPs to put his case for him. Earlier this month an early day motion calling for Ram's release was tabled in the House of Commons.

The Home Office would have preferred Ram to stay silent. Until recently journalists were not allowed to interview prisoners serving life sentences for murder, regardless of any claims of wrongful conviction. But last July the House of Lords ruled the policy unlawful. Accordingly this is the first time Satpal Ram has been free to speak. 'I'm finally able to give evidence on my own behalf,' he says.

The facts of the case are deeply disturbing. Satpal was born and bred in Birmingham, where his parents settled from northern India in the early 1960s.

In November 1986, then 20, he and two friends went for a meal at the Sky Blue Indian restaurant in the Lozells area of the city. A table of six white people also in the restaurant started hurling racist abuse at the waiters and complaining about the Asian music that was being played. Satpal responded with a call for the music to be turned up. One of the men, Stuart Pearce, then came at Satpal with a broken glass and stabbed him in the face. Satpal responded by drawing a short-bladed penknife. In the ensuing struggle, Pearce sustained a number of stab wounds and later died.

Satpal, now 34, says that in the racially divided Birmingham of the Eighties, where attacks on Asians were commonplace, his response was understandable. He himself had been assaulted a number of times prior to the incident at the Blue Sky. 'I've never refuted that a man died as a result of my actions,' he says. 'But the circumstances have never been taken into consideration. I accept that loss of life is wrong, but if I hadn't done what I did I would be dead now.' A week after the killing he turned himself into the police.

Prior to his trial Satpal had only one 40-minute consultation with his barrister, the late Douglas Draycott QC, who informed him that because of the number of stab wounds Pearce had sustained a plea of self-defence - which is an absolute defence - was destined to fail. This was based upon a misreading of a pathologist's report. It did list six wounds, but said that only two of them were the result of the blade. The rest were superficial and caused when Pearce fell on to broken glass.

At the trial, a whole series of Asian witnesses, who could have supported Satpal's version of events, were never called. The evidence of the one who did take the stand was dismissed because his broken English could not readily be understood. No translator was employed. At one point the judge told the jury he would translate, even though he did not speak Bengali.

'I put my faith in my lawyers,' Satpal says. 'They assured me they'd do everything they could but the trial was a complete farce. To be honest I didn't know what was happening. I'd spent eight months on remand in inhumane conditions.'

Immediately after his conviction Draycott informed Satpal - wrongly - that there were no grounds for appeal. He was left to draft an application himself, which he did, citing the failure to employ interpreters. He did eventually manage to get two appeal hearings, the last in 1995. Both times the judges ruled that failings on the part of defence counsel were not good grounds upon which to quash a conviction.

It would be bad enough if the issues raised around Satpal's case began and ended with his wrongful conviction, but they do not. His subsequent treatment within the prison system gives grave cause for concern.

'My troubles really started three years after my conviction when my family began a campaign to gain my release,' he says. He alleges he received a beating in Nottingham prison at the hands of prison officers, though no charges have been brought. Another allegation of physical assault while at Frankland Prison in Durham last year is now under police investigation.

He has been thrown repeatedly into solitary confinement, often stripped naked. He describes an incident - also at Frankland Prison - where, after a routine search, six prisoners were forced to strip naked and squat for anal searches. Satpal was not one of those involved but he was outraged at the way fellow inmates were being treated. 'This to me was a sexual assault,' he says. 'I made a telephone call to the Prisoners' Advice Service and requested them to provide legal intervention. The call was monitored and the next thing I know I am accused of incitement and taken to the segregation unit.' Many of the attacks and much of the intimidation he has endured have come, he says, garnished with racial abuse.

Satpal is a fiercely articulate man who has been politicised by his experiences. He has educated himself about his rights in prison and refuses now simply to accept the rulings of authority. 'If I feel I'm being maltreated or denied my rights, I'll say so. I don't get gratification from causing problems.'

He recognises that this is at the root of his problems. For a period he was on the Continuous Assessment Scheme, under which he was transferred from prison to prison, often in a restraining body belt, every 28 days. 'It's designed to isolate you as much as possible from your family,' he says. But this has not dissuaded him from complaining. 'I've gone past caring what they think of me. There's people in this prison, where I've been seven times, who have been responsible for torturing me and now they're all smiles as if nothing ever happened. If there's any kickback from speaking out in this article, I'll deal with it when it happens.'

The prison service refuses to comment on individual cases, so it is impossible to verify any of Satpal's allegations. However, the last time he came up before the parole board in 1997 it recognised that he had been transferred far too many times.

The tariff placed on him at sentencing - the minimum period he has to serve - was put at 10 years, which he has now completed. To be eligible for parole, prisoners must undertake offending behaviour courses on things like anger management and strategic thinking, but there are always long waiting lists. A prisoner moving every single month has no chance of getting a place. Despite the recommendation of the parole board he has been transferred a further nine times since it was made.

Satpal has been at Full Sutton this time round for five months. His treatment has been better: 'It's only because of the intervention of the media and groups like Amnesty International and Asian Dub Foundation that the situation has improved. I've got a very good support group outside. They'll visit me wherever I am and if they don't hear from me by phone they get concerned,' he says.

There's also a new set of legal initiatives under way. His case has been taken on by Gareth Pierce, the solicitor who helped to overturn the wrongful convictions of Judith Ward, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. 'This is a forgotten case,' she says. 'It is a litany of mistakes, of things not done, of evidence not pursued. Most of it has been touched upon and then shrugged off by different courts.' She is now preparing a submission for the Criminal Cases Review Commission which will focus on the social context in which the original incident occurred.

'Here's a young Asian man growing up in an urban environment where active racist attacks were ongoing,' she says. 'It wasn't exactly kill or be killed but it was defend or be dead.' Home Office Minister Paul Boateng has agreed to a meeting next month with Satpal's supporters to discuss the case. Last weekend Boateng was elected a vice-president of the Civil Rights Movement, founded last year out of the Stephen Lawrence campaign.

These are promising developments, but Satpal won't speculate on what he'll do when he's released. He's been inside too long for those kinds of painful dreams.

Instead he keeps busy, reading a lot - books by Gandhi and Mandela, Martin Luther King and George Jackson of the Black Panthers - and doing courses on calligraphy and design.

But, he says, 'I'm optimistic that something's going to happen, not that I have any faith in the appeal process. It's just things are moving.' He knows better than to hope for quick results. He's been inside for 13 years.

For Satpal Ram, the Asian man from Birmingham who pulled a knife in self-defence, time only ever moves slowly.

Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.

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