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Widow's shock as G4S guards cleared

The widow of Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga expressed her "shock and disappointment" as three G4S guards were cleared of fatally restraining him on a plane as he shouted "I can't breathe".

Terrence Hughes, 53, Colin Kaler, 52 and Stuart Tribelnig, 39, were accused of forcing Mr Mubenga's head down, restricting his breathing for 36 minutes as the British Airways flight prepared to take off at Heathrow.

By the time the cabin crew raised the alarm on October 12, 2010, Mr Mubenga had collapsed and gone into cardiac arrest. He died later in hospital.

Passengers said they heard Mr Mubenga cry out "I can't breathe" as he was pinned down in his seat - despite already being handcuffed from behind with his seatbelt on.

But the guards denied restraining the 46-year-old using a banned technique known as "carpet karaoke", and insisted they never heard him shout that he was struggling to breathe.

The jury, which retired yesterday, found the three men not guilty of Mr Mubenga's manslaughter following a six-week trial at the Old Bailey.

His widow Adrienne Makenda Kambana sat in Court 16 throughout most of the evidence although at times appeared to be overcome with emotion.

She looked stunned as the jury returned the verdicts and left the courtroom soon afterwards.

Later she issued a statement saying: "For the last four years I have fought for justice for Jimmy and our five children. I am shocked and disappointed by the jury's findings. It is hard for me to understand how the jury reached this decision with all the overwhelming evidence that Jimmy said over and over that he could not breathe.

"I wish to thank those who worked so hard for justice for me and our children. My struggle continues."

Calling for procedures to be improved to save lives in the future, she added: "I am not going to leave it like this. Jimmy was a good man, a good father and a good husband. I will fight - fight for justice for him.

"Jimmy died because he could not get help on that plane. It was a big shame. They were watching Jimmy die.'

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, said: "It is difficult to reconcile the verdict with the evidence heard at the trial that over 20 people heard Jimmy Mubenga say 'I can't breathe'.

"There needs to be a mechanism for state institutions and the private companies they employ to be held to account when people die. The lack of state accountability over black deaths in custody is a global issue and one that will not go away until urgently addressed."

Mark Scott, solicitor for the Mubenga family, added: "Cases involving deaths at the hands of officers of the state need to be treated in the same way as criminal investigations into any other deaths.

"No family should have to wait for over four years for the criminal process into the deaths of their loved ones to come before the court."

All three defendants were tearful as they left the dock.

As they walked out of court, they issued a statement. Alex Preston of Olliers Solicitors, said: "They bitterly regret the death of Mr Mubenga but have always said they were trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances to the best of their ability.

"They are grateful to the judge and jury for the care they have taken resolving these sad events.

In an unprecedented move, a section of the Boeing 777 with three rows of three seats was specially constructed inside the courtroom to demonstrate how Mr Mubenga died.

Jurors were even invited to wear the rigid double lock handcuffs the guards used to experience for themselves how he would have felt.

Outlining the case, prosecutor Mark Dennis QC said that before boarding the plane, Mr Mubenga had been "fit and healthy" and co-operative but had become upset after talking on his mobile in the toilet cubicle.

The guards were alleged to have responded by handcuffing him behind his back, forcing him into a seat and pinning him down leaning forwards in a position which affected his ability to breathe.

Mr Dennis said: "Each officer would have known from their training and from common sense that keeping someone in such a position was likely to cause a person harm yet they did so over a prolonged period and did so ignoring shouts from Mr Mubenga that he was in trouble.

"'I can't breathe' shouts were heard by many a passenger seated further away."

By the time it dawned on them he was in a "critical state" it was too late and Mr Mubenga, who had lived in the UK for years, had gone into cardiac arrest, he said.

Some of the 159 travellers on board the Boeing 777 recalled hearing Mr Mubenga shouting repeatedly "I can't breathe".

Nicholas Herbig, from New Mexico, in the United States, told jurors that despite the commotion he was "trying to mind my own business".

He said: "I could hear somebody being loud, like he did not want to be there. The one guy was very loud. He was saying 'All you people are watching them kill me. I can't breathe. They are going to kill me'."

But Hughes, from Portsmouth, Kaler, of Kempston, Beds, and Tribelnig, from Horley, Surrey, denied wrong doing.

Before Hughes joined G4S, staff at his previous security firm had used a technique called "carpet karaoke". But the restraint of pushing a seated person's head forward, compressing the diaphragm, to stop them spitting, was later deemed "malpractice".

Hughes told jurors he had seen it work on two occasions but he denied he had ever used it himself or picked it up on the job from his "elders".

Mr Dennis asked if he had resolved to hold Mr Mubenga's head down to "stop him making a noise" until they got into the air.

Hughes replied: "No sir. I did not agree with it when I saw it and I don't agree with it now."

Mr Dennis said: "We suggest that you and your colleagues were forcing Mr Mubenga forwards, holding him down, controlling him and maintaining that hold for as long as you could and as long as he resisted, you held him down."

Hughes replied: "He was never forced down with his head forced beneath his knees."

Tribelnig said he did not hear Mr Mubenga "say anything about air" either and insisted he did not force the deportee's head down.

The case drew to a close against the backdrop of protests in New York over the chokehold death of Eric Garner, 43, the grand jury decision clearing the police officer concerned, and accusations of police racial bias.

Mr Garner's last words "I can't breathe" echoed those of Mr Mubenga but the jury in the trial of the three G4S guards were told not to carry out any internet research.

An inquest jury last year concluded that Mr Mubenga was unlawfully killed, prompting the Crown Prosecution Service to reconsider bringing charges against the three men - but not against their employer.

The jury in the criminal case was not told of the inquest verdict for legal reasons, or that two of the defendants - Hughes and Tribelnig - had racist "jokes" on their phones.

A G4S spokesman said: "Providing a safe and caring environment for those in our custody or care is a priority for G4S. The death of Mr Mubenga was a tragic incident and our thoughts and condolences remain with his family and friends.

"We note the criminal case which has been under way at the Old Bailey in relation to Mr Mubenga's death and three former employees. We respect the legal process and the findings of the court."

Mr Mubenga's widow told Channel 4 News: "I was sad, I was shocked about the decision."

Asked if he could have died naturally, she said: "No, he was fine, he was well and fit."

She added: "He was fine, he wasn't a troublemaker.

"For me, he was trying to stop the deportation, because he was thinking about his family.

"They are not giving us the truth, he couldn't breathe, 20 people heard Jimmy saying he couldn't breathe."

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