THE family of a man who died in police custody vowed to fight for the truth about what happened to him as hundreds gathered to lay him to rest yesterday.
Sheku Bayoh, 31, died last month following a police incident in Kirkcaldy during which a female officer was taken to hospital.
Hundreds took part in a funeral procession in the town yesterday, which included a two-minute silence outside the police station. Speaking at a public meeting after the ceremony, Mr Bayoh’s mother, Aminata Bayoh, said her son would not be able to “rest in peace” until the truth was known about what happened to him.
An investigation into his death is being undertaken by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc).
However, there has been criticism of Pirc – which does not have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence – after it took more than a month for the nine police officers involved to give their version of events. The exact cause of death is yet to be established, but Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, said it was suspected to be positional asphyxiation.
Mr Anwar yesterday alleged that staff who treated Mr Bayoh at Kirkcaldy’s Victoria Hospital had to ask for handcuffs and leg restraints to be removed when he was brought in unconscious.
Speaking at a public meeting attended by hundreds of friends and relatives, Mr Bayoh’s mother said: “He died in the arms of the police – everybody knows that. But they are afraid to tell us the truth.
“If they don’t tell us the truth, Shek’s soul will never rest in peace.”
Mr Bayoh, originally from Sierra Leone, had lived in Fife for more than ten years and was a father of two.
His partner, Collette Bell, with whom he had a young son, wiped away tears as she read a poem about Mr Bayoh.
She said: “Now we have laid you to rest, I promise not to stop until we have justice for you.”
Earlier in the day, members of the community joined the father-of-two’s relatives and friends on a walk to Kirkcaldy Police Station on St Brycedale Avenue where he was remembered during a two-minute silence.
A hearse with a floral wreath reading “Daddy” led the procession. The crowd, many of them wearing T-shirts featuring a picture of Mr Bayoh, chanted “we want answers” and “we want justice” before heading to the Kirkcaldy Islamic Centre for prayers.
Mr Anwar said there was a number of unanswered questions for the police and those investigating what happened to Mr Bayoh.
He said officers had initially told Mr Bayoh’s family that his body had been discovered by a member of the public, before changing their story five times.
He also claimed officers had taken Ms Bell’s house keys, claiming her home was a “crime scene”.
And he alleged that doctors had asked for restraints to be removed when an unconscious Mr Bayoh arrived at hospital.
Mr Anwar said: “Many staff at the Victoria desperately tried to save Sheku’s life for which his family will always be grateful, but he was officially pronounced dead at 9.04am.
“We also know that when Sheku arrived at the hospital unconscious that he was still handcuffed with leg restraints still in place, which doctors demanded the removal of.”
Mr Anwar also alleged that CS spray, pepper spray and batons had been used by the nine officers involved in taking Mr Bayoh into custody.
He said: “This week the Bayoh family insist that the Scottish Government immediately seek cross party support for a change to the law, making it mandatory for officers to provide operational statements on their return to station after a death in custody.
“That this fundamental flaw in the law strips the powers of Pirc in deaths in custody is unacceptable.
“As for the police, if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear from such a move.”
Mr Anwar added: “The family does not understand why the officers involved in engaging with Sheku Bayoh were not immediately suspended without prejudice after his death.
“It is a matter of public concern that officers remain at their desks or in contact with the public pending the outcome of the investigation into a death in custody.
“For the chief constable to suspend the officers without prejudice is not a question of pre-judging the outcome of the investigation but ensures neutrality, integrity of the investigation, transparency, stopping conferring as well as protecting officers involved in such incidents.”
The Pirc, which has no statutory power to compel police officers or police staff to give evidence, said it had repeatedly tried to speak to arresting officers following the death of Mr Bayoh on 3 May.
Officers have now given statements, but there is anger from Mr Bayoh’s family about how long the process took.
It is understood that police officers had held back from providing statements to the Pirc until they learned they were being treated as witnesses rather than suspects.
The Scottish Police Federation (SPF) said a “petite” female officer had been violently assaulted during the incident and had believed she was going to die.
In a statement released last week, the SPF accused Mr Anwar of “throwing mud”.
It said: “In directing increasingly hyperbolic, inaccurate and bizarre rhetoric at the Scottish Police Federation, one could be mistaken for believing that Mr Anwar being at the centre of attention appears to be of greater importance than allowing the investigation to proceed without interference.”
Local MSP Claire Baker, who was among those on the podium at yesterday’s public meeting, said: “I’m here to support the family and find out answers as to what happened on that day.
“The family deserve answers. We shouldn’t have to be demanding answers, but that is the situation we find ourselves in.” The people who are accountable must be held to account.