Joan McAlpine: A chance for justice to heal this painful wound

Manjit Sangha, sister of Surjid, holds a picture of her brother. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Manjit Sangha, sister of Surjid, holds a picture of her brother. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The decision by the Crown Office to reopen Scotland’s ‘Steven Lawrence’ case shows a profound change of attitude at the top

SURJIT Singh Chhokar may have been dead for almost 14 years, but the pain it as deep now for his family as it was at the time of their loss. As well as being a personal tragedy, the violent death of the 32-year-old remains more than a stain on Scotland, it is an open wound, an unresolved crime which should have been cleared up quickly had authorities at the time done their job. The news, therefore, that the Crown Office has re-opened the case in the light of the changes to double jeopardy, and has instructed police to renew their investigation, is greatly welcomed. As with Stephen Lawrence, a chapter waits to be closed, and when it does, Scotland will be the better for it.

The killing of the young waiter in Wishaw in 1998 is often described as “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”. But while the focus of the London case was the attitude of the Metropolitan Police, in Scotland it was the prosecution service which was found wanting – though the police did not escape criticism in their handling of the victim’s grieving family.

The failure to secure prosecutions, in two separate trials, was described by The Scotsman at the time as a “catalogue of incompetence, failure and injustice.”

What always struck me as a reporter and editor observing and commenting on the case at the time was the arrogance of the Crown authorities – they hide behind a legalistic cloak of infallibility. There was an attitude that justice would be undermined if the Crown Office had to explain the reasons for decisions, when it should be the other way around.

Common sense said prosecutors had messed up, by allowing two separate trials in which the accused escaped guilty verdicts by blaming each other. There were eye-witness accounts of the killing, when Mr Chhokar was stabbed through the heart in the streets after being dragged away by three men. How could such apparently strong evidence not lead to a successful prosecution?

Reforms were put in place after two inquiries – by Raj Jandoo into the police and Sir Anthony Campbell into the prosecution. But there remained considerable bitterness – especially as the 2001 inquiry reports were leaked to the press before the family got the chance to see them.

It sometimes seemed like everyone who was anyone in Scottish legal circles has been involved in the Chhokar case, in either a direct way or in campaigning for justice for the dignified Sikh family.

Aamer Anwar, who lead the original Chhokar Family Justice Campaign, went on to become one of our best-known human rights lawyers. Roseanna Cunningham, who, in response to Chhokar, demanded more transparency from the Crown Office while SNP deputy leader in 2001, is now herself a minister in the Scottish Government. Jim Wallace, the Scottish Executive justice minister at the time, was criticised by Anwar and the family for his handling of the fallout from the case – he is now the Advocate General, fighting on behalf of a Conservative Liberal Democrat government in the House of Lords.

Lord McCluskey presided in the first Chhokar murder trial and famously criticised the Lord Advocate, Lord Hardie, for only putting one man before the court. McCluskey, now retired, continues to be outspoken, most recently in his report into the remit of the Supreme Court in Scotland. But there have been many other famous characters in this sad tale, the QCs Derek Ogg, Donald Findlay and Paul McBride, for example, all featured at various points as defence counsel.

However there are grounds for optimism. More than a decade after the murder, the two failed trials, and two highly critical inquiries into the police and the prosecution service, we can take heart that the country has moved on to a better place – even if the family still wait for closure.

Aamer Anwar is not a man often heard praising the authorities – he is infamously more often in conflict with them. I first met him when he was a young student and I was on my first newspaper-reporting job.

He was campaigning on behalf of Asian dental students who believed they were being marked down in examinations. He later won damages for a racist attack by police while he was a student.

Then, after speaking up for his client after one particular terrorism trial, he found himself charged with contempt after a complaint by the trial Judge, Lord Carloway. It was highly unusual for a lawyer to be prosecuted in this way and Anwar himself became a cause célèbre, attracting support from the likes of Helena Kennedy and Michael Mansfield, QC. Typically, he was vindicated when he went on win his case – and the client whom he represented had his conviction overturned on appeal.

So it is surely significant that Anwar went out of his way last week to praise the current incumbents of the Crown Office, the institution that was so criticised for its handling of the Chhokar case all those years ago.

Today’s, Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, spoke directly with the family, who in the past had been ignored and marginalised by the authorities. Clearly the culture at the top of our prosecution service has changed for the better.

“The meeting was the Crown Office at its very best, in the way that they dealt with the family, their empathy, and we saw a sheer determination to get justice,” Anwar said last week. “It was a major change from what we saw taking place over ten years ago. We walked away from it with a glimmer of optimism that we could get justice.”

It shows how far we have come since 2001, when Roseanna Cunningham wrote that the case was “depressingly familiar because of the lack of information given to victims and their families”

We must now hope that the new investigation ultimately leads to a successful prosecution, and that open wound will finally heal.

• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP, for the south of Scotland