London police acknowledge shooting victim was innocent


July 24, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Police efforts to halt attacks against London's transit system took a tragic twist, as Scotland Yard acknowledged yesterday that undercover police who chased a man onto a subway car and then shot him in front of terrified passengers had killed an innocent man.

It was another day of rapid developments in the investigation of the transit system bombings, with authorities announcing another arrest and the discovery of a suspected bomb discarded in a park.

Several emergency alerts were issued on subway lines, and police made urgent appeals for the public to help them find the four men who tried Thursday to blow up three train cars and a bus.

The revelation that police had killed an innocent man, though, dominated the news and caused the first visible split between moderate Muslim leaders and police, who have been asking for their assistance.

In a statement, police said they regretted the killing and identified the victim - who was first described by witnesses as South Asian in appearance - as Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian who was apparently on his way to work as an electrician.

He lived in the South London neighborhood of Brixton.

His cousin, Alex Alves, told Brazil's O Globo television: "He does not have a past that would make him run from police."

Alves said that de Menezes, who was from the city of Gonzaga in Minas Gerais state, had lived in London legally for at least three years.

Witnesses who were sitting in a subway car at Stockwell subway station Friday, waiting for it to depart, said that de Menezes was running from police and hopped into the car where undercover police shot him five times while he was on the floor.

`A tragedy'

"For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one that the Metropolitan Police Service regrets," the statement said.

The killing was acknowledged as a mistake late yesterday afternoon.

In the hours after the shooting, Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of London's police, had said that the man was "directly linked" to a failed bombing attempt Thursday.

The man had no explosives on him.

London police have been swarming through the city's subway system since July 7, when four suicide bombers struck three different trains and a bus, killing 56 people and injuring hundreds more.

It is believed that only the detonators went off in Thursday's attack, causing no deaths and only one minor injury.

The police statement issued yesterday maintained earlier contentions that de Menezes had emerged from a house under surveillance in connection with the attempted bombings.

Undercover officers followed him, police say, and they determined that his clothing and his actions were suspicious.

He was wearing a heavy coat on a 68-degree morning when he was shot, although the day had begun at 55 degrees.

Muslims fearful

The initial description of the man as South Asian in appearance, understood here as meaning Muslim, initially caused fear among British Muslims of repeats of Friday's shooting.

Yesterday's acknowledgment that the man was Brazilian, and Scotland Yard's admission that he was innocent, did nothing to calm those fears.

"I have full respect for the police, but let's not water down how they exercised their judgment," Azzam Tamimi, head of the Muslim Association of Britain, said last night.

"This amounted to an execution," Tamimi said.

"We, as Muslims, are afraid," said Ihtisham Hibatullah, a spokesman for the Muslim association.

"Whether he was Muslim or not, we know who is being targeted, and beyond that we mourn any innocent life taken, especially when that life is taken by people specifically assigned to protect the innocent," said Hibatullah.

Investigation begun

Scotland Yard said that an investigation into the shootings is already under way.

Sure to be a central question is whether police on the scene had reason to believe that they were faced with a suicide bomber.

The biggest mystery in the shooting is why, if witness accounts are accurate, de Menezes was running from police.

News reports quoted at least two witnesses saying that he had hopped a turnstile as he tried to get away.

Since the bombings July 7, Londoners have held vigils and moments of silence to acknowledge the dead, and they have showed their defiance to those who would do them violence by continuing to use London's transit system.

Taking a toll

The past couple of days, though, seemed to be taking a toll.

The day after the July 7 bombings, ridership numbers on London's subway, familiarly called the Tube, were just below normal, but Transport For London, which operates the system, said that ridership was down yesterday.

The union for subway and bus drivers said that it was unhappy with security precautions and that workers would be justified in staying away from work.

Londoners have every right to be jittery. Men who attempted to bomb the subway are still loose.

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