Man found guilty of the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar after 18-year campaign that rocked Scottish legal system
CAMPAIGNING LAWYER Aamer Anwar has hailed as “historic” the verdict of a high court jury today which convicted a man of the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar, after nearly 18 years of a campaign for justice that rocked the Scottish legal establishment.
Ronnie Coulter was found guilty after his second trial for the murder of Chhokar, who was stabbed to death, at the age of 32, in North Lanarkshire in 1998. Coulter was originally acquitted in 1999.
Speaking to CommonSpace, Chhokar family lawyer Anwar attributed changes in the Scottish legal system’s approach to cases around racism to the mass campaign launched to seek justice for the Chhokar family, and the willingness of elements of the legal system to respond to its pressure.
He said: “It’s historic. This case was central in driving change. This family placed vicitims’ rights at the heart of the criminal justice system, it will be their legacy for generations to come.
“Had it not been for this family and the campaign they fought, we could have had the same justice system that I described on those steps [in 2000] as a ‘gentleman’s colonial club’ I said it was ‘one law for the rich, another for poor and black people’. Unaccountable, institutionally racist and all white.
“This rocked the justice system to it’s very foundations, and it was a change that had to take place.”
The campaign for justice for Chhokar and his family has spanned almost 18 years, and involved three trials and three inquiries. The resulting criticisms of the criminal justice system and the accusation of ‘institutional racism’ led to a major overhaul of how victims and ethnic minorities are treated in the Scottish justice system.
Aamer Anwar and members of the Chhokar family make a statement following the guilty verdict
Coulter, his nephew Andrew Coulter and another man David Montgomery drove to see Chhokar on 4 November 1998 after a row over a stolen £100 Giro check. In the subsequent confrontation, Chhokar was stabbed three times, including through the heart, which resulted in his death through massive blood loss.
Coulter had accused his nephew and Montgomery of carrying out the killing. The two men stood trial for the crime in in 2000 but were acquitted.
The judge at the initial trial of Coulter lambasted the conduct of the Crown for failing to indict all three men together. Campaigners have raised concerns including the handling of the victim’s family.
Coulter was brought to trial for a second time in September this year under changes to Scottish law that allow a person to be tried twice for the same crime. The Chhokar case is only the second to be brought since the introduction of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act 2011.
In his speech outside the High Court in Glasgow, Anwar, who is an outspoken anti-racism campaigner and human rights lawyer, read out a statement from the Chhokar family which praised the prosecutors, Crown Office and Police Scotland for an “unwavering commitment to justice”.
“No matter how big the odds against you, no matter how unfavourable the balance of forces, no matter the system, you can still win,” Aamer Anwar
However, he also said that there was still some distance to travel before Scotland had a truly egalitarian legal system.
He said: “I don’t think there’s any room for complacency, I still think there’s a long way to go before we achieve a justice system we can all be proud of, poor, black, white, asian, whatever colour nationality or creed you are, that you can be confident you can be treated from start to finish with dignity and respect.
“There’s a huge difference from where we were 25 years ago, but we need to keep pushing.
“No matter how big the odds against you, no matter how unfavourable the balance of forces, no matter the system, you can still win,” he added.
Timeline of the Chhokar case
November 1998: Surjit Singh Chhokar murdered
March 1999: Ronnie Coulter acquitted of murder. Trial judge highly critical of decision not to indict all three men for murder
March 1999: Aamer Anwar meets with Chhokar family and they form the Chhokar Family Justice Campaign with the support of the Scottish trade union movement and many others
November 2000: Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery acquitted of murder in a separate trial
October 2001: Jandoo inquiry finds institutional racism in the police and Procurator Fiscal
January 2015: Crown Office indicts Ronnie Coulter for the murder of Chhokar, after a change to double jeopardy laws in 2011
October 2015: Ronnie Coulter found guilty and convicted of murder
Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.