Belfast Telegraph

Chinese prisoner 'hanged himself in Northern Ireland prison cell'

A suspected Chinese drug dealer hanged himself in his prison cell over fears he faced 12 years away from his family in a Northern Ireland jail, a watchdog found today.

Binghua Li, who spoke little English, was also depressed and confused over the length of time it was taking for his case to go to trial, according to the official investigation into his death.

The 36-year-old had been on remand inside Maghaberry high-security jail in Co Antrim for nine months on drugs charges after being arrested with 47 other Chinese nationals in a major PSNI bust of cannabis factories in June 2008.

He had only been in the country for six months when he was detained.

Inside prison he had been treated for depression and had made emotional calls to his wife back in China expressing fears he faced a lengthy spell behind bars.

Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe, who investigated the circumstances of the death in custody in March last year, found that his mental state had deteriorated further two weeks prior to his suicide after a court appearance, when a decision on when his trial would start was delayed for at least another month.

During her probe, Mrs McCabe received a joint letter from 11 fellow Chinese prisoners claiming the time the police investigation was taking was a contributory factor in him taking his own life.

The ombudsman also found that Li, who had not taken his prescribed anti-depressants in the 24 hours before his death, was concerned about the consequences for himself and his family in China of not paying off £18,000 he had borrowed to get to Northern Ireland.

He wrote two notes in Mandarin prior to hanging himself - one to his family expressing "deep regret" at his circumstances and the other to the PSNI making clear that he alone was responsible for his death.

Mrs McCabe said the prisoner appeared to have had no clear guidance or expectation of what the outcome of his trial would be or indeed the timing of the trial.

"My investigation found that this ongoing uncertainty, combined with a number of other personal circumstances, contributed to his decision to take his own life," she said.

Noting those issues and that not all information about Li's consultations with medics had been documented, the ombudsman made a series of recommendations.

"Following a thorough investigation I am making nine recommendations to the Prison Service and its South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust partners which concern the use of translation services, a revision of practice in recording systems and arrangements surrounding the management of prisoners with mental health issues," she said.

Justice Minister David Ford said three of the ombudsman's recommendations have already been implemented, while the others are being addressed.

"I wish to thank the Ombudsman for her report," he said.

"While the prisoner was well cared for in prison, the report has identified some learning points.

"He was a vulnerable prisoner who had the added difficulties of having little or no English and being so far from home.

"Staff did much good work with him during his time in prison and he was allowed a free 10-minute phone call home on a weekly basis."

In regard to the length of the police investigation and time it was taking to get to trial, Mr Ford added: "The report provides evidence of the prisoner being deeply frustrated at the time it was taking for his case to come to trial.

"The issue of delay is a priority for me and the Criminal Justice Board, and a multi-agency group has been established to identify ways of speeding up the process."

The minister added: "The Prison Service has many strengths and dedicated staff and undertakes much positive work in serving and protecting the community.

"Nevertheless, this tragedy shows that there is always room for improvement, and both I and the Director General are determined to ensure that the learning points identified from this tragic death are taken on board in an effort to reduce the risk of future re-occurrence."

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