The hate crime that leads to silence
Published by The i paper and The Independent (4th April, 2016)
It was a shocking crime. Two soldiers, out for a night drinking near their training camp in Wales, came across a pair of teenagers quietly walking home together – and decided to target, abuse and beat them after taking them down a dark alley. The younger boy, only 16 years old, was left unconscious and and was in a coma for three days. His friend, older by two years, managed to escape after being punched, kicked and hit with a terracotta pot, leaving a trail of blood across the street as he fled.
So what caused such a brutal attack? Simple: the victims were people with disabilities and this horrific assault was described in court as ‘entertainment’. Both were autistic, and the younger boy was also deaf. They were naive and trusting, like many with learning difficulties, having led sheltered lives. Even before this sadistic assault the 18-year-old struggled to mix with other people; imagine the psychological scars left now by such hideous savagery.
This attack bore all the hallmarks of a hate crime. The victims were taunted with verbal abuse. The insults, and terrified reaction of the frightened teenagers, were filmed on phones so they could replay the ‘fun’ later. We can at least be thankful the inadequate sadists involved were caught, prosecuted and handed long jail sentences. Yet it is striking how little publicity this disturbing attack by two members of the armed forces received.
But then who really cares about people with disabilities, especially those with learning difficulties? For there is a steady drip-drip of such cases, yet so little concern – let alone any outrage. Sometimes the victims are killed, perhaps after being tortured, or sexually assaulted to demean them further. Sometimes they are beaten and kicked. Sometimes they are spat on in the street, or tipped from wheelchairs. Or simply mocked and called names: perhaps ‘spastic’ or ‘mongol’, like those two beaten teenagers, or ‘scrounger’, an increasingly popular insult in the lexicon of hate.
Here are more recent cases at random. A gang befriended then stole from vulnerable adults. A vicar’s wife was convicted of stealing from an old man with learning difficulties. A drug addict blackmailed a disabled man with false paedopheilia claims. Thugs so scared a man after chasing him down the street he jumped from a second-floor window. ‘The group, like a pack of animals, turned on an entirely innocent young man for no reason other than he behaved differently because he has learning difficulties,’ a Glasgow court heard.
Often it is not only hate crime but ‘mate crime’, when lonely or trusting people with learning difficulties are manipulated, abused, robbed or murdered by people posing as pals. Last December, a young couple in Dorset were convicted of murder after luring a 22-year-old man to their flat, stealing £800 from his bank account and then stabbing him in the neck. His tragic last words – again recorded on a mobile phone by his tormentors – were: ‘Stop, I just want to be friends, please.’ This is far from a unique case.
And these are just the most extreme cases that lead to prosecutions. There are almost 200 incidents of hate crime against people with disabilities each day in England and Wales according to official figures, yet campaigners say many more go unrecorded. More than half those surveyed by the Disability Hate Crime Network say they have been attacked on the streets. And it starts early: a report by Enable Scotland last week revealed more than nine in 10 children with learning difficulties are being bullied at school – and most believed their teachers did not care about them.
Is it any wonder these people are so excluded from society when school leaves them feeling frightened and alone? Studies have indicated mate crime often starts in the playground. And as children get older, even something as simple as a night out with a friend can end up in a gauntlet of hate. Adam Pearson, who has a facial disfigurement caused by benign tumours on nerve endings, recently told the BBC how he is called ‘spastic’, ‘elephant man’ and ‘deformed mutant’ when trying to have a quiet drink after work, leaving him feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Some police forces have begun to improve handling of such hate crimes after a series of lethal failures in cases that did hit the headlines. Yet as we saw in the appalling saga of Bijan Ebrahimi, falsely accused of being a paedophile and kicked to death outside his Bristol home, others still have a long way to go. His pleas for protection from vigilantes went unheeded, leading to recent prison sentences for a police constable and a community support officer who failed in their duty to protect this disabled man from murder.Veteran campaigner Anne Novis told last week how an awareness campaign for police in London led to a tenfold increase in recorded disability hate crimes over an eight-week period. This was encouraging, she said, but ‘even this significant increase does not reflect the true scope of hostility against us’.
Such hostility is hard to fathom. Yet Lord MacDonald, former director of public prosecutions, has accused Britain of failing to realise the extent of these crimes, calling disability hate crime a ‘scar on the conscience’ of the criminal justice system. He is right: decent people are being picked on for their difference, abused on the streets and failed by the state with sickening regularity. Yet these scars run far deeper. They stain the very soul of our nation.