Smack in the middle of the hellish debacle — a day after he was arrested, a day before he would be killed — Bijan Ebrahimi was on the phone again with police, begging for help.
“My life is in danger, could you please come?” the Iranian native told the operator for the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, the law enforcement authority in his part of southwest England according to a transcript of the call. “Right now a few of the neighbors outside and they are shouting and calling me ‘pedophile.’”
On the other end, the operator went though the routine: sift the info from the caller’s accent-heavy English, update the log, explain that the officers Ebrahimi wanted were not available. He had already made dozens of similarly fruitless calls throughout the day — sputtering, ignored SOS flares. Within minutes of hanging up, records indicate he called police back, trying to explain again what was going on.
Ebrahimi, a Muslim, was killed in the early hours of July 13, 2013 — stomped to death in the grassy common area outside his working-class apartment complex on Capgrave Crescent in Bristol. And although police quickly identified and arrested two twenty-something neighbors for the murder, culpability fanned out to the entire community, including the Avon and Somerset Constabulary.
For years, Ebrahimi had complained about racially motivated harassment and abuse: between 2007 and his death, he made 73 calls to police reporting racial abuse, threats and assaults. But law enforcement failed to record a crime nearly half the time. And now he was the victim of what authorities now acknowledge was a hate-motivated crime.
This week, four years after Ebrahimi’s brutal murder, the country’s Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has dropped the results of a massive investigation into the factors — missed red flags, professional blind spots, prejudices — that contributed to the tragedy. The report doesn’t pull punches: Ebrahimi was “treated consistently differently from his neighbors, to his detriment and without reasonable explanation,” the report states. “Some of the evidence has the hallmarks of what could be construed as racial bias, conscious or unconscious.”
“Bijan Ebrahimi self-identified as a victim of race hate, but was never recognized as a repeat victim of abuse who needed help,” Jan Williams, the IPCC’s commissioner, told the BBC this week. “Instead, his complaints about abusive neighbors were disbelieved and he was considered to be a liar, a nuisance and an attention seeker.”
Ebrahimi was born in Iran in 1969. His parents died when he was young, and according to the IPCC report, his immigrated to Britain in 2000, receiving indefinite permission from the government to stay as refugee a year later. He attended some college, studying carpentry and plumbing. A back injury made full-time work difficult; and his health was further exacerbated when a roommate assaulted him in 2005. Afterward, Ebrahimi moved into a complex of apartments in the Brislington area of Bristol.
There, his problems with his English neighbors began, according to the report. Ebrahimi repeatedly reported incidents to police: rocks were thrown at his windows; he was chased and called “paki”; someone wrote “pervert” on his door; and a neighbor even threatened to kill Ebrahimi, telling him to get out of “his” country. After two separate incidents involving someone lighting his car on fire and attempting to set his front door on fire, Ebrahimi moved to Capgrave Crescent. None of the incidents were properly categorized as possible hate crimes, according to the IPCC investigation.
Problems continued at the new address. Ebrahimi, a tidy-housekeeper who kept flowers outside his unit, complained to police about neighbors drinking in the complex’ common green. Neighbors, in turn, threatened Ebrahimi. In 2009, a woman from the neighborhood accused Ebrahimi of sexually assaulting her. When police investigated, Ebrahimi revealed he had secretly recorded the woman threatening to falsely accuse him of the assault. No charges were filed, but tensions continued between Ebrahimi and his neighbors.
The local police also seemed to tire of the Iranian’s complaints. In 2010, the Bristol City Council tried to issue an injunction against Ebrahimi for fighting with his neighbors.
The police constable assigned to the area, Kevin Duffy, filed a statement supporting the action; the recent IPCC report argued the statement clearly indicated where the constable’s sympathy lay. “The general theme running through the 2010 statement appeared to be one of misleading the reader into thinking that Mr. Ebrahimi was, more often than not, the perpetrator of many of the incidents reported to the police, rather than the victim.”
Duffy also wrote in police documents that Ebrahimi had “a history of making spurious complaints against his neighbors,” and “makes false allegations against his neighbors when in fact he is actually the offender.”
All these tensions snapped on July 11, 2013.
According to the IPCC report, police responded then to a call to Ebrahimi’s residence after a possible assault involving a 24-year-old neighbor, Lee James. The latter told police he had been outside in the common area drinking beer when he noticed the “foreign” man aiming his camera his way.
Lee burst into Ebrahimi’s house, accusing him of trying to take pictures of James’s children. When police arrived, Ebrahimi explained he was only trying to take photos of James leaving a mess of beer cans in the common area. The officers inspected his camera, finding no evidence of anything untoward.
But a group of neighbors had begun collecting outside the apartment, shouting that Ebrahimi was a “pedophile.” The constables decided it was unsafe to leave Ebrahimi home, so they arrested him for breach of the peace. As Ebrahimi was led from the house in handcuffs, some of the neighbors clapped. Others shouted “pedophile!” Someone shouted: “firebomb.”
Ebrahimi was released the next afternoon, July 12, around noon. By evening, he was calling the police department, asking to speak to one of the officers involved the night before. A group of neighbors were outside his flat. “I don’t feel safe here,” he told the dispatcher. “They are calling me names and I can’t go outside the door.” Despite nearly a dozen calls from Ebrahimi to the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, no officers came.
At 1:23 a.m. July 14, another call came into the station, this time a report of a body lying in the common area. When authorities arrived, they found Ehrahimi’s dead body engulfed in flames one street over from his apartment.
Police would later determine that Lee James accosted Ebrahimi on his own when Ebrahimi stepped outside to water his flowers. According to the judge’s remarks at a later sentencing, an intoxicated James attacked Ebrahimi, knocking him to the ground. One witness would tell police she overheard the neighbor screaming, “I am going to kill you.” Another witness watched James repeatedly stomp Ebrahimi’s head.
James’ friend, Stephen Norley, later told police he had helped move the body from the complex and then set Ebrahimi aflame with mineral spirits.
“I am satisfied that this was a vigilante crime, with elements of bullying and victimization that this implies,” Bristol Crown Court Justice Simon said before sentencing James to life in prison and Norley to four years incarceration in November 2013. “You had decided (wrongly) that Mr. Ebrahimi was a pedophile and that this put him outside the law.”
Although Ebrahimi sadly didn’t get much help from the law awhile he was alive, the IPCC’s Jan Williams noted in the recent report’s introduction that he never stopped seeking, and expecting, authorities to do their jobs: “The most salutary lesson for the Constabulary is underlined by the sad, poignant fact that Bijan Ebrahimi kept faith with the police throughout, no matter how many times he was rebuffed.”