Government issues landmark apology over Christopher Alder’s death in custody

22 November 2011

The Government has issued a landmark apology for serious failings relating to the death of a black former British Army soldier in police custody. Father-of-two Christopher Alder, 37, choked to death on the floor in a pool of his own blood, urine and excrement while four officers stood, watched, chatted and joked at Hull Police Station in April 1998. None of the officers faced any criminal or disciplinary penalty in relation to the incident.

Liberty acted for Mr Alder’s sister, Janet Alder, who took a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that her brother suffered inhuman and degrading treatment and that his death was never properly investigated. The Government fought the case until the final stages when it lodged its official statement with the Strasbourg court. It is believed to be the first time the UK has ever admitted violating Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to life and no torture, inhuman or degrading treatment – in relation to a death in custody in the UK. The declaration also acknowledges that racism played a part, in breach of Article 14 – no discrimination.

However the Government also claims that reforms introduced since Mr Alder’s death are sufficient to help prevent similar incidents in the future. Liberty accepts that such changes have helped but says further action is needed.

The initial investigation into the Falklands veteran’s death was carried out by a neighbouring police force rather than an independent body. Blood samples, officers’ clothing and Mr Alder’s clothing were all destroyed without being tested – compromising subsequent investigations. The cause of Mr Alder’s death and whether, for example, he had been assaulted by any of the officers was never definitively established. In March 2006 the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded that – despite flaws in the original investigation and findings of “quite obvious neglect of duty” and “unwitting racism” – no further action could be taken against the police. Five Humberside police officers were cleared of manslaughter and misconduct charges in 2002 and cleared of disciplinary offences in 2003.

The European Court of Human Rights announced last week that it will be issuing a judgment on the case at 9am GMT today. This indicates that the Court has accepted the Government’s concession, which read: “The Government of the United Kingdom regret the occurrence of the actions which have led to the bringing of the present application, in particular the treatment in custody of the Applicant’s brother Mr Christopher Alder and the anguish that this treatment and his death have caused to his family.

“The Government accept that the lack of an effective and independent investigation in this case constitutes a violation of the procedural obligations in Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention. Further, the Government accept that the treatment that the Applicant’s brother received in police custody amounted to a substantive violation of Article 3 with 14 of the Convention.”

Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty, said: “The Government’s unprecedented apology and admission of blatant violations of fundamental human rights are hugely significant and certainly not before time.

“But more than 13 years on still no one in the police has been held responsible for Christopher’s shocking death. Proper accountability is vital in these situations and in future the IPCC must take stronger, more decisive action where serious human rights violations occur.

“The offence of misconduct in public office is completely inadequate in these circumstances – as demonstrated by the fact that these officers were somehow cleared of it. Sadly admissions and apologies will matter little if such tragic cases keep occurring.” 

Janet Alder said: “The officers responsible for Christopher’s unlawful and racist killing have never answered any questions about their involvement in his death. It has taken 13 years to break through what I see as a reluctance of the organisations dealing with controversial custody deaths to hold police officers accountable, or to believe or consider whether police officers could be capable of severe maltreatment of citizens within their custody.

“Why or where did Christopher sustain the additional injuries he suffered? Why was another of his teeth missing? Where was his belt? These concerns have never been investigated or addressed.

“It has taken bringing an action in the European Court of Human Rights – and judges there unanimously acknowledging my complaints were admissible after watching the horrific video of Christopher’s death – to force the Government to apologise for failing to hold the officers responsible accountable.

“It wasn’t hard to see that my brother – an ex-paratrooper decorated for his services – was denied his right to life; that his treatment was inhuman and degrading and that race played a part in his death.

“This case underlines the importance of human rights laws – without such laws these failings by the Government would never have come to light.

“This has had a massive negative impact on my life and my family, who wanted nothing more than the truth for those responsible to be held accountable.”

Janet has been shortlisted in the “Close to Home” category at tonight’s Liberty Human Rights Awards in London for her remarkable strength, courage and resilience in pursuing justice for Christopher’s death in custody over the past 13 years.

Contact: Liberty’s press office on 020 7378 3656 or 07973 831128

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. The European Court’s judgment will be available from 9am GMT on 22 November 2011 at www.echr.coe.int.  

2. The full text of the Government’s declaration is available on request to the Liberty press office.

3. A full summary of the facts is contained in the earlier Decision of the European Court of Human Rights dated 14 December 2010, declaring the case admissible:

http://cmiskp.echr.coe.int/tkp197/view.asp?item=1&portal=hbkm&action=html&highlight=alder&sessionid=81943070&skin=hudoc-en