Women Against Rape, Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women of Colour supported the family through this inquest, since Mohammed Ahmed came to see us last year. You can see a SKY TV interview with him here. He is a speaker at Anti Racism & the New Politics, Wed 24 February, 6.30-9pm Somers Town Community Centre 150 Ossulston St, London NW1 1EE https://www.facebook.com/events/665703890236152/
Faiza Ahmed: how one woman’s cries for help were missed by every authority
On Thursday, she called the police. On Friday, she alerted the jobcentre, and later called an ambulance. And then it was too late. How Faiza Ahmed was let down by the system
Faiza Ahmed. Photograph: courtesy of Mohammed Ahmed
It was just after 8am on 6 November 2014 when Faiza Hassan Ahmed knocked on her neighbour’s door. Violet Nantayiro did not know her, but Faiza was obviously distressed. She let her in and tried to comfort her. Faiza said a man had attempted to rape her, and asked Nantayiro if she would ring the police on her behalf.
Nantayiro did know that 31-year-old Faiza had been up much of the night. She had heard people chatting and music playing until 3am in the flat upstairs. Faiza told Nantayiro that she had been drinking with her boyfriend and his friend until the early hours. She said her boyfriend had recently gone to work, and she had gone to bed, where she was sexually assaulted by his friend.
A few minutes later, police officers arrived at the address in Limehouse, east London. By 9.30am the officers had left, after a tense encounter, without taking a statement. One day later, Faiza Ahmed was dead.
Mohammed Ahmed, 33, meets me at the offices of Women Against Rape, a campaign group that has supported Faiza’s family’s quest for justice. The inquest into his sister’s death is due to start in a couple of weeks, and he is worried it is going to be a whitewash; a verdict of suicide with no contributory factors, meaning that nothing could have been done to save Faiza’s life. The family strongly believe this is not the case.
Mo was always close to his sister. They were born in Somalia and moved to London when they were toddlers. There were six sisters and one brother, but Mo and Faiza had a special bond.
First there was the age – Mo was just a year older than Faiza. Then there was their attitude to life. Their sisters were well-behaved, conscientious children, but Mo and Faiza were a handful: strong, sparky and opinionated. Faiza was expelled from a number of schools. Sometimes they ran into trouble with the police, who, they said, were racist and stereotyped them as aggressive.
“We were so similar, our stories were almost identical,” Mo says. “Both of us were confident in ourselves. When we had an idea, nothing would stop us. We were brought up devout Muslims, but both of us went off the rails. So we were on the outside, compared with the rest of the family. We were thick as thieves, and would always cover for each other.”
Faiza, who was also known as Sophie, had her first run-in with the police when she was 14, and it changed her life in a way she could never have anticipated. But first Mo wants to tell me why he calls her Sophie. He smiles: “There was a teacher at school who couldn’t pronounce her name, and somehow it came out as Sophie. And that stuck!” Mo still knows her best as Sophie.
He can’t remember what Faiza was arrested for at 14. But he remembers their father going to the police station to collect her. As he walked there, a car ran him over, and a week later he died. Faiza always blamed herself for his death, though she never talked about it. (Mo only learned this from psychiatric reports after her death.) It also made her more hostile to the police.
Mo, a talented athlete, joined a football academy in Leyton, east London, at 16, but didn’t progress. At 21, he joined the army. He found the experience depressing, again encountering racism, and began to drink too much. “I joined as a devout Muslim. While I’d been in trouble with the police, I wasn’t a confrontational, aggressive person. The army made me a very aggressive, tough, robust person.”
One night he got in a fight and was convicted of actual bodily harm. He was kicked out of the army in 2004, and sentenced to six months in prison, of which he served two. This also proved a life-changer – but in a positive way. Mo told himself that he would never get into trouble again, and that he would make something of his life. Today, he works as a firefighter for the London Fire Brigade, has a nine-year-old daughter, and is getting married to his partner Wendy in July.
Faiza Ahmed in 2013 with her brother Mohammed in his fire brigade uniform; he had just received an award for bravery. Photograph: courtesy of Mohammed Ahmed
A year before Mo was convicted, Faiza had been sent to prison for the same offence. At the age of 20, she was convicted of actual bodily harm for assaulting a police officer, and sentenced to four months, of which she served two.
Faiza was also determined to make a new start when she came out of prison. But while Mo got ahead in the fire service, she struggled to find work. In 2012, she got a job as a team leader for the London 2012 Olympics and adored it. “London 2012 gave people like my sister an opportunity,” Mo says. “It was the best four weeks of her life. We’d never seen her so happy. If she had been given an opportunity, I have no doubt she’d be alive today. But after London 2012, it was back to the cycle of struggling, and the jobcentre trying to push her into jobs she had no interest in.”
After Faiza died, Mo discovered from her psychiatric reports that he had been her role model. “I went to prison and rebuilt my life, and she went to prison and was trying to rebuild hers. When bad things kept happening to her, she kept saying to herself, ‘If Mo can do it, I can do it.’” Now he blames himself for not being there enough, even though he saw her virtually every week right up to her death.
He tells me that when he was in prison, he became suicidal, and it was Faiza who convinced him there was so much to live for. This is why he is determined to get justice for Faiza.
St Pancras coroner’s court is a claustrophobic building at the edge of a park in north London. There is a room for the jury, a tiny room for the bereaved family, two toilets, and that’s it. It’s so small that everybody has to squash together in the hallway before being allowed into court: Mo, his mother, his sister Ferdus, the barrister for the family, barristers for the police and London Ambulance Service, police officers, ambulance workers, solicitors, and campaigners supporting the family.
Last year the coroner ruled that there would be a regular inquest (two days, without a jury); but the family went to the high court to argue for an article 2 inquest, to examine whether any act or omission by a state agency had contributed to Faiza’s death. These last longer, are more detailed, involve legal teams and are usually held in front of a jury. If the jury rules that the state contributed to the death, the family can go on to make a claim in court that there was a breach of the right to life under article 2 of the Human Rights Act.
The work coach from the jobcentre is asked why he didn’t call the police. ‘I don’t know. It eludes me’
Today, coroner Mary Hassell explains to the jury why this is a special inquest: that they are here to rule how Faiza died and whether there were any contributory factors. The jury hears that Faiza had expressed suicidal thoughts in the past: in 2010, she was diagnosed with a personality disorder; in 2011, she was sectioned by the Metropolitan police under the Mental Health Act; in 2013, she had again disclosed suicidal thoughts and tried to cut her wrists; and, in 2014, she had talked to her GP about being tearful, struggling to get a job, smoking weed and having intermittent thoughts of suicide but no plan to act on them. Faiza last saw her GP three months before she died, in August 2014, and said she was drinking large amounts of alcohol and not eating properly; she did add that she had a supportive partner.
Hassell reads out a letter that was left by Faiza: “This is to my family, including you Wifey… I have had enough. I just want to sleep forever! Please forgive me for exiting the world the way I did. Thank you Wife for loving me! Mum I’m sorry. The pain of feelin’ alone got too much!”
There are mutterings in the court. Counsel for the family, Taimour Lay, explains that Faiza was fond of slang, and Wifey refers to her boyfriend. But the boyfriend, who was reluctant to give evidence, is not in court.
Ferdus Ahmed, Faiza’s sister, takes to the witness stand to give a moving statement about her sister. “Faiza was kind and intelligent,” she says. “Very intelligent, actually, but she lacked confidence. She was very good with children. She adored her niece.” Ferdus momentarily breaks down, and is passed tissues. “She was a bright individual, but never got a break. She did a childcare course, but she had a criminal record and she found it difficult to get work. Faiza did suffer with depression. One day she’d be happy, the next really down. I felt cannabis was one of the things that really affected her behaviour, made her hallucinate. But I think she was trying to give it up.”
The coroner asks Ferdus what she would like to learn from the inquest. She talks about the missed opportunities to help Faiza. Hassell asks what would have happened if somebody had called her on 7 November and said, “Your sister is upset, and needs support.”
“I would have got in my car and gone to her house straight away,” Ferdus says. “We weren’t aware of anything that happened. We never got that chance.”
Mo provides a written statement about Faiza. “My sister’s a trailblazer, the most creative person in our family,” he writes. “She had her faults, but each fault would be complemented by kinder, more caring qualities.” He mentioned the negative relationship she had with both the police and the jobcentre. “She was sanctioned by the jobcentre for turning up late, missing appointments. She lived with the constant fear of being sanctioned. She commented that they never really believed her when she told them about her depression.”
When Faiza knocked on Violet Nantayiro’s door on 6 November, she was beside herself. Evidence emerged in court that she had been in a bad way all week, and that the alleged sexual assault had tipped her over the edge. Nantayiro tells the jury that she has worked in a psychiatric hospital, and that Faiza appeared “hysterical, a bit incoherent. She kept repeating how evil it was that a friend could do this to you. She was emotionally distraught, crying.” Nantayiro says Faiza was acting as if she had taken drugs. “It was not the behaviour of someone in their right mind. She was shouting at the top of her voice.”
Did Nantayiro feel threatened, the coroner asks. “No,” she says. She is a small, slight woman. “You wouldn’t have genuine concern of her… she was just a bit bigger than me.”
Four police officers attended the address that morning, and were buzzed in. The first two officers to arrive, both male, dealt with Faiza. The second pair dealt with the suspect, who was still upstairs in Faiza’s flat. One of the officers sent upstairs was female.
Nantayiro is asked about the demeanour of the police. “They were trying to calm her down, explain to her that they have to do their job.” They were very matter-of-fact, Nantayiro says. She pauses. “I thought they would be much softer. I guess they have to be professional.” Nantayiro says she was surprised by how persistent the police were in demanding intimate details of the assault, which made Faiza more hostile.
Much of the police evidence about Faiza is consistent with Nantayiro’s: she had been drinking, she was shouting. But there are significant differences. The officers say they found Faiza’s behaviour threatening. They say she refused to give essential information, and that she would not hand over her clothes or bedding for examination. The officers insist that, although she was aggressive, they did not believe she was suffering from mental health problems. (If they had, they would have been obliged to refer her to mental health services and ensure she was safe in the immediate future.)
PC Steven Pardoe tells the court: “She just seemed to be anti-police. At no point did I think mental health was an issue. I believe we dealt with it professionally. Tried to do everything to reassure her. We were there for the best part of an hour and a half, pleading with her, explaining why we need to take a statement. Unfortunately, it was not something she wished to do.”
Mohammed Ahmed. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Guardian
Unlike in a criminal court, witnesses are allowed to hear each other’s evidence because, as Hassell points out, this is purely a fact-finding mission. The Ahmed family are not pleased when they hear this. They believe they are more likely to get to the truth of what happened if witnesses give their versions of what happened without having heard their colleagues. And yet inconsistencies do gradually emerge in the officers’ evidence. PC Neil Reynolds, who attended with Pardoe, admits that Faiza was not entirely hostile and that, rather than failing to tell them what had happened, she gave them the four facts considered vital in reporting a sexual assault within 20-30 minutes: what happened, where, when and to whom.
The female officer, PC Kelly Cloughton, who attended a few minutes after Pardoe and Reynolds, describes how she and a fourth colleague interviewed the suspect (who was arrested and later released). The coroner asks if it would have been more appropriate for her to talk to Faiza, rather than the male officers. “She might have engaged more,” Cloughton replies. “But because we arrived later, there was no chance of that.” If she had gone upstairs to the suspect, then returned to Faiza, there would have been a danger of cross-contaminating the suspect’s and victim’s evidence.
The officers agree that the more they asked for specific details, the more abusive Faiza became; they all state that she told them she hoped they were raped. Reading from his statement, PC Pardoe says: “She said, ‘You lot don’t want to know. You are heavyweight bullies. He won’t go to prison. Fuck off. I hope you get raped. You can’t do anything.’”
At around 9.30am, Faiza stopped cooperating and insisted on returning to her flat – the scene of the alleged crime. The officers say they could do nothing to stop her, and left.
It was at this point that the Metropolitan police made a crucial decision. When a sexual assault has been reported, policy at the time stated that an officer who specialises in sexual offences had to be dispatched within an hour. It makes sense: after all, officers talk about “the golden hour”, during which they can gather the best DNA. This protocol has now been changed, following recognition that the target was routinely being missed: last year, the mandatory time requirement was removed altogether.
The police decided to call off the specialist officer when Pardoe reported back that Faiza was being difficult and aggressive. Hassell reads a statement from Detective Sergeant Ian Valentine explaining why the specialist officer was taken off the job: “I got a call… saying she was no longer cooperating. Research showed that she was violent when intoxicated, and it was no longer appropriate for her [the specialist officer] to attend without body armour.” He cancelled the deployment of DC Maxine Durrant and arranged for another officer to attend the address the next day with a colleague and safety equipment.
The specialist officers left Faiza’s flats without seeing her. The ambulance crew decided she was at no risk to herself
Giving evidence, Durrant says her role is dealing with aftercare. “I am like the personal officer for the victim,” she explains. Durrant might have technically been Faiza’s personal officer, but she never met her and didn’t even open a log on her. The coroner asks Durrant why she didn’t attend later that day. “In my experience,” Durrant says, “when someone is that upset, irate, uncooperative, more often than not they need more than a couple of hours to calm down.”
Many sharp intakes of breath come from the family as they hear Durrant’s evidence. In the break, Mo asks how it can make sense. First, if it was felt the rape specialist would not be able to work with Faiza, how could the Met expect untrained officers to successfully take a statement? Second, if the specialist officer did not attend in the mandatory hour, how could the Met collect evidence while still fresh? Finally, if the Met had cancelled the visit because Faiza was difficult, would they not have to cancel a huge proportion of visits to traumatised victims of sexual assault?
The police gave Faiza more than a couple of hours to calm down. Nobody knows what happened to her later that day or the next morning. There were no visits from specialist officers, and she did not make contact with her family. Evidence reveals she drank during that time, but how much is impossible to say. The postmortem showed 231mg per decilitre of alcohol in her blood (the legal limit for driving is 80mg per decilitre). There is a blank until she attended the jobcentre between 2pm and 3pm on Friday 7 November, the day she died.
Clarence Whyte, the work coach at the jobcentre, is a quietly spoken man in a starched white shirt, tie and navy pullover. He tells the jury he asked Faiza why she was three days late to sign on, and she explained she had been sick. He said she would have to fill in a JSA28 form to explain her absence. “She wrote on the form, ‘I was busy trying to kill myself, drinking non-stop,’” Whyte says. He goes on to explain that there is a space for the date when you started being unwell (Faiza put 4 November) and another space for when you think you will be well again (Faiza put 7 November). Whyte says she handed him the report and, as he was reading it, disappeared without him noticing. That was the last he saw of her.
The coroner looks shocked.
“How did she seem?” she asks.
“Not that I recall.”
“Did she look upset?”
“No, she seemed perfectly calm. Sometimes we see people categorised as potentially violent, and we wonder why they are categorised as such because they seem perfectly calm.”
Whyte told his team leader what happened. They completed a “six-point plan” (which they are obliged to do if they believe a client is going to self-harm) as best they could, decided not to sanction her, and continued with their work.
Whyte is asked how seriously he took Faiza’s statement. “I had to take it as a serious issue, but it wasn’t unusual.”
Did he think of ringing the police or ambulance service? “No. From my perspective, she wasn’t at the point where she was going to commit suicide.”
“I appreciate she did not say, ‘I’m going to kill myself now’,” Hassell says, “but ‘I was busy trying to kill myself’ is quite a stark statement. If I came into contact with a statement like that, I would be worried. I’d feel frightened for them.”
Hassell: “If you were frightened, why didn’t that prompt a call to the police?”
Whyte: “I don’t know. It eludes me why I didn’t do that.”
Ahmed’s sickness form, filled in on the day she died; she was referred to a mental health team five days later. She sometimes spelled her name with an ‘s’. Photograph: courtesy of Mohammed Ahmed
Lay asks Whyte why he was so convinced Faiza was no longer suicidal. “The impression I got was the sickness was in the past, because she was well enough to fill in the form. The impression I got was that she’d put the 7th to cover herself for dates she should have signed on.” In other words, Faiza was not in danger because she had said she would be well again on 7 November – the same day. “She filled in the form to say she was better,” he repeats.
What if somebody has mental health problems, Lay asks. When should they say they will be better? Whyte does not know how to answer. He was, after all, just doing his job, which involves coming across many vulnerable people, and is unqualified to make mental health assessments. The Department for Work and Pensions has not sent a barrister to represent Whyte, or Jobcentre Plus. He is left to fend for himself.
Five days after Faiza’s visit, however, somebody at the jobcentre decided her statement was sufficiently disturbing to make an urgent referral to the community mental health team. But by then it was too late.
Lay asks Whyte if he now thinks he should have made a referral immediately. “Based on the information I had, no. I didn’t think it was necessary.” Would he do the same thing again? “If exactly the same circumstances occurred, I don’t think I would have done anything differently.”
One day, as we are squeezed together in the entrance, an elderly woman arrives at the coroner’s court. She is dressed eccentrically; a Manchester United woolly hat, Unite trade union lanyard hanging around her neck, and a coat covered in badges dedicated to issues of justice.
“Hi, I’m here for Faiza,” she says. “I’m a supporter.”
A man with a crew cut and wearing a suit stares. “What are you supporting?” he asks. “Man United?” He grins at the police officer standing next to him, then walks over to the coroner’s officer, who worked in the Met for 27 years. “What does it mean, she’s a supporter?” he asks. “A supporter of what? Isn’t that a bit weird?” The coroner’s officer tells him that some people are here to support the family.
Later that day, I find myself sitting next to the man with the crew cut in court. He observes me making notes. “Who are you reporting for?” he asks. I tell him I’m from the Guardian, and ask where he’s from.
“DPS,” he says tersely and turns away.
The DPS is the Directorate of Professional Standards, the police body responsible for investigating complaints against the professional conduct of officers. In this case, the DPS will have investigated all the officers who were assigned to Faiza in the final two days of her life.
I tell the DPS officer my name and ask him his. He gives me the same withering look he gave the elderly lady. “I’m not daft enough to give you my name,” he says. “I don’t want to end up in the papers.”
The inquest is scheduled for seven days, but ends up lasting eight. Witness after witness recounts what they know about Faiza Ahmed’s final two days. It seems there were many opportunities to save her life. She felt suicidal, but that does not necessarily mean she wanted to die. If she had really intended to kill herself later that day, why would she have turned up at the jobcentre to make sure she wasn’t sanctioned?
After Faiza left the jobcentre, she was in a bad way. At around 4pm, she called the London Ambulance Service and said she wanted help. The jury hears the transcript of the conversation. It is hard to listen to – literally, a cry for help.
“I’m trying to slit my wrist, like. I just need some help.”
“OK, I’m just going to ask you a few questions. It won’t delay any help. Are you feeling violent to anyone else?”
“No, I’m just by myself.” Faiza says she is in her front room with a piece of glass. “I’m very scared. I had too much to drink, and I’m sorry, like. I don’t want to live no more. I just want to die. There’s nothing to live for. There’s no one with me. I just want to die. I just want to die.”
The operator tells her that an ambulance is coming and to stay on the line until it gets there. Faiza then says she doesn’t want an ambulance, apologises for wasting their time and puts down the phone.
It is at this point that there is another monumental failure to communicate. The ambulance crew is not told that Faiza is suicidal, merely that she is self-harming. Because she has said she has a piece of glass, they call the police as backup. Neither the police nor the ambulance service knows that she reported an attempted rape the previous day. Even though Faiza has been sectioned in the past, they do not know that she has made previous attempts to take her own life. The police arrive before the ambulance. Ferdus tells the court that her sister would have been “devastated” to be faced by the police when she had called the ambulance for help.
“Everything’s fine,” Faiza tells officers. “There’s been no crime. I don’t need you lot. Fuck off.” Still, she lets them in. Again, these two policemen describe Faiza as aggressive and uncooperative.
They make way for the ambulance team, but by then she doesn’t want anything to do with them, either. It is during this time, when both crews are there, that Durrant and another officer from the Met’s rape and sexual offences team finally arrive to see Faiza. They press the communal bell to get in and walk up the stairs, where they see an officer on the landing.
Durrant tells the inquest she could hear Faiza screaming (the ambulance team later say they could not recall screaming), and that she was told Faiza was trying to cut herself. After roughly five minutes, the two specialist officers decide Faiza is best left with the regular officers and the ambulance service. They leave without seeing her, even though they are the only professionals on the scene trained to talk to her about the sexual assault. It remains unclear how much the specialist officers told the Met officers already present about the attempted rape allegation.
The regular officers tell the jury that, yes, they were informed Faiza had made an allegation of sexual assault. But they didn’t know it had happened the previous day. Durrant admits that she and her colleague did not instruct the officers to tell Faiza they had called, nor did they consider staying to see if Faiza was all right. The officers made no note in their report of having told the ambulance service of Faiza’s allegation of sexual assault, though they tell the court they imagine they would have done so. Meanwhile, the ambulance crew insist they were told nothing of Faiza’s circumstances, and would have acted differently if they had. The difference in attitudes between the Metropolitan Police and the London Ambulance Service is striking. Whereas the Met appears not to admit to a single failing in court, the LAS acknowledges that there were many.
The police and ambulance service left Faiza’s home between 5pm and 5.30pm. The ambulance service had decided she was at no immediate risk to herself – there was only a tiny mark on her wrist. Crew members think they suggested she ask friends or family to come round to support her, but again there was no documentary evidence. Faiza was left alone.
About 40 minutes later, she walked to Westferry DLR station. She is seen on CCTV entering the station at 18.09. At 18.12 she steps on to the railway tracks, in front of an oncoming train. The footage shown to the jury is devastating – the quiet, deliberate way she moves towards the platform edge, puts out her hands to break her fall on to the line, the apparent indifference of nearby commuters, who continue reading their newspapers (it happened so quickly, they had no idea what she was doing); the slow, inexorable progress of the train.
Everything that could have gone wrong during the final two days of Faiza Ahmed’s life, did. The train was not driver-operated. It was travelling at only 15mph. An officer for British Transport Police is asked whether it would have made a difference if there had been a driver at the front. He says that it is unlikely, but admits he cannot answer definitively.
For four days, the Met did not inform the Ahmed family that Faiza had made an allegation of attempted rape the day before she died, or that police had attended her home on the day she died. (They even asked British Transport Police not to notify next of kin that they had attended.) Astonishingly, when they did tell the family, they admitted she had been accidentally logged as a suspect rather than a victim. For months after her death, the police claimed they had no record of having sectioned Faiza in 2011 – despite the fact that British Transport Police had already found documents relating to it. Although DPS officers who visited the Ahmed family soon after Faiza’s death admitted mistakes had been made, none of these failings was admitted in court.
After the coroner sums up on the penultimate day, Mo briefly loses it in court: he tells one DPS officer that he has no right to be here, that he is “scum”.
On Wednesday 20 January, the jury returns its narrative verdict: the police, the ambulance service and the jobcentre had all contributed to Faiza’s suicide. Hassell reads out the verdict and announces that the failings are so serious, she will be writing Prevention of Future Death reports to the Metropolitan police, the London Ambulance Service and the Department for Work and Pensions. In other words, all three authorities will have to act, to ensure against further deaths in similar circumstances.
Two rows in front of me, the Ahmed family sit on the hardwood benches: Mo’s partner, Wendy, has her army around him, Mo has his arm around Ferdus, and Ferdus has her arm around her mother. All four are weeping.
Outside court, Mo punches his fist in the air and tells me: this is justice. “If I had died like she did, Faiza wouldn’t have let it go. She would have fought and fought.”
• In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.