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