Two police officers were disciplined for failings in handling the case of an Indian man killed in the North, it emerged today.
Action was taken against the lead detective and a family liaison officer who were involved in the probe into the death of 37-year-old Brij Sharma in the Co Derry village of Moneymore five years ago.
But the Police Ombudsman’s office, which examined the case on the back of complaints by Mr Sharma’s family, said there was no evidence of racist attitudes within the police team working on the case.
Mr Sharma’s brother Bharat today accepted the Ombudsman’s finding but claimed institutional racism within other elements of the criminal justice system had let the family down.
With support from the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, he has called for a public inquiry into the handling of the case.
Brij Sharma, who owned a grocery shop in north Belfast, died after being hit during an argument outside his friend’s house in April 2004.
One man pleaded guilty to manslaughter of the father of two and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.
But the victim’s brother claimed the sentence was too lenient and has been campaigning for the incident to be re-classified as a racist attack.
“The family after years of grief and healing, we are now ready to tell the general public: there was no justice for my brother as the result of institutional racism within the criminal justice system,” he said.
“My brother has no justice simply because he was an ethnic minority.”
In the original hearing the prosecution said there was not enough evidence to support a racial motivation and instead said the altercation arose after a personal dispute between the parties in the weeks before the fatal assault.
The Sharma family dispute this and claim the PPS ignored witness statements alleging racist remarks were made against the victim.
They also want a public inquiry to examine:
:: why the charge was reduced from murder to manslaughter
:: why the case was based on the premise that Mr Sharma died from one punch when medical reports indicated he had been struck twice. (during the case the prosecution said the second blow had not caused significant injury)
:: why the family was not kept informed of developments in the case, including that they had the right to challenge the sentence.
The Ombudsman’s findings, which were passed to the family in 2007 but were only made public by Mr Sharma today, said the senior investigating officer, who recommended that the defendant be charged with murder, should have been more pro-active in consulting with the PPS during the case, in particular with regard to the matter of the victim being hit twice.
He said the police also failed to properly investigate whether an unexplained dent in Mr Sharma’s car had been related to one of the deceased’s head injuries.
In regard to the family liaison officer, the Ombudsman found that he failed to keep in contact with the Sharmas after the sentence hearing.
The officers were not subjected to formal punishment, such as suspension, but were instead issued guidance on their future work.
In regard to the sentencing, the Ombudsman noted that if the crime had been treated as being racially motivated the judge at that time did not have additional powers to hand down a tougher sentence. (such powers were introduced four months after Mr Sharma’s death)
But the victim’s brother said many questions over the PPS and judiciary’s role in the case remained unanswered.
“We basically feel over these last five years very let down, let down or disappointed, what ever way you want to call it,” said Mr Sharma.
“My brother is not coming back, my nephew and niece’s father is not coming back but for the all the right reasons, and public interest mainly, above all our interest as a family is only that we get to know the truth and basically we find out that justice is served in this case, which is hasn’t been so far.”
Mr Sharma’s widow Heather had previously criticised her brother for pursuing the campaign. However, today he claimed that she and her two children were now fully behind his efforts.
“They were going to be here today but it was too emotional for them,” he said.
Patrick Yu, the Executive Director of NICEM, said he backed the family’s efforts.
“We support the calls of the family to prevent these things happening in the future in view of the disadvantageous position of ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland.”