The young Asian always insisted he killed in self-defence. Now he
speaks to Jay Rayner a columnist for The Guardian in an interview at
HMP Full Sutton
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
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 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
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
'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.
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