Murder of Yvonne Fletcher
15 June 1958|
|Died||17 April 1984
Westminster Hospital, London, England
|Department||Metropolitan Police Service|
|Years of service||1977–1984|
|Rank||Woman Police Constable|
WPC Yvonne Joyce Fletcher (15 June 1958 – 17 April 1984) was a British police officer fatally shot during a protest outside the Libyan embassy at St. James's Square, London, in 1984. Fletcher, who had been on duty and deployed to police the protest, died shortly afterwards at Westminster Hospital. Her death resulted in the Metropolitan Police laying siege to the embassy for the next eleven days, and the United Kingdom severing all diplomatic relations with Libya. Two years later it became a major factor in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to allow US President Ronald Reagan to launch the US bombing of Libya in 1986 from American bases in the United Kingdom.
No one has ever been convicted for the murder of Yvonne Fletcher. However, in 1999, the government of Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility for her death and agreed to pay compensation to her family.
Fletcher, who had joined the Metropolitan Police Service in 1977, was part of a detachment of 30 officers sent to St James's Square to monitor a demonstration by Libyan dissidents opposed to the rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Among the detachment with Fletcher was her fiancé.
The demonstration had been organised by the Libyan National Salvation Front (LNSF) following the execution of two students who had criticised Gaddafi. Since February 1984, the Libyan embassy, which was known as the Libyan People's Bureau at the time, had been staffed by "revolutionary committees" made up of students loyal to Gaddafi who had assumed control of the diplomatic mission with the tacit approval of the Libyan government. They were not professional diplomats. Gaddafi loyalists at the embassy warned police that they intended to mount a counter-demonstration.
On the day, about 75 protesters arrived by coach from northern England. The demonstration began peacefully as police successfully kept the two sides apart with crowd control barriers. Both groups shouted at each other and waved banners and placards. Loud music was played from the People's Bureau in an apparent attempt to drown out the noise of the protesters.
Without warning, automatic gunfire was discharged into the anti-Gaddafi protesters at 10:18 am. Eleven people were hit, including the unarmed Fletcher who was fatally wounded in the stomach. As she lay on the ground, her fiancé (who was also a serving police officer) was at her side. Fletcher was taken to Westminster Hospital where she died from her injuries approximately one hour later. Libyan radio reported that the embassy was stormed and that those in the building fired back in self-defence against "a most horrible terrorist action".
Fletcher's hat and four other officers' helmets were left lying in the square during the ensuing siege of the embassy. In the days that followed, the images of them were shown repeatedly in the British media.
The official inquest into Fletcher's death concluded she had been killed by shots from a Sterling submachine gun fired from the first floor of the Libyan embassy. In November 2015, the Metropolitan Police released a previously unseen video showing the moments before and after shots were fired and WPC Fletcher was hit.
Following the shooting, the embassy was surrounded by armed police for eleven days, in one of the longest police sieges in London's history. Meanwhile, Gaddafi claimed that the embassy was under attack from British forces, and Libyan soldiers surrounded the United Kingdom's embassy in Tripoli in response.
The British government eventually resolved the incident by allowing the embassy staff to leave the embassy and then expelling them from the country. The United Kingdom then ended all diplomatic relations with Libya. However, six British nationals were held as political hostages in Libya by a Revolutionary Committee following the shooting. They were released after nine months of detention on 5 February 1985, four days after the unveiling of Fletcher's memorial in St. James's Square.
The British government took no further official action following the ending of diplomatic relations with Libya. Some unconfirmed reports even suggested that Fletcher's murderer had been hanged shortly after returning to Libya in 1984. But at a meeting with the British ambassador to Egypt in 1992, Libyan Colonel Abdul Fatah Younis apologised on behalf of the Libyan government and offered to extradite her killers. However, the Foreign Office did not accede to the offer.
In July 1999, the Libyan government publicly accepted "general responsibility" for the murder and agreed to pay compensation to Fletcher's family. This, together with Libya's eventual efforts in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing, paved the way for the normalisation of Anglo-Libyan relations. Once diplomatic relations were restored in 1999, Metropolitan Police detectives visited Libya on a number of occasions to pursue their investigations into her murder.
But on 24 February 2004, the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 reported that the new Libyan prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, had claimed his country was not responsible for Fletcher's murder (nor for the Lockerbie bombing). Ghanem said that Libya had made the admission and paid compensation to bring "peace" and an end to international sanctions. Gaddafi was said to have later retracted Ghanem's claims.
Finally, in June 2007, British detectives were able to interview the chief Libyan suspect for the first time following the normalisation of political ties with the country. Detectives spent seven weeks in Libya interviewing both witnesses and suspects. Queenie Fletcher, Yvonne's mother, described these developments as "promising".
In February 2009, Queenie Fletcher suggested that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who at the time was appealing his conviction for the Lockerbie bombing, should be moved to a prison in Libya, on condition that the Libyan government co-operate with detectives investigating her daughter's murder. Mrs Fletcher said: "I know he is ill and I think he should be returned to a prison in Libya so his family can visit him. The appeal could still go ahead in Scotland, but he could stay in prison in Libya. It's got to be a fair exchange, so Yvonne's case can be closed. I'd like the police here to be given permission to interview whoever they've got to interview in Libya and see whoever they need to for someone to be brought to trial."
In October 2009, The Daily Telegraph revealed that the Crown Prosecution Service had been told by an independent prosecutor that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute two Libyans. A report from April 2007 concluded that the two men, who were then senior members of the Libyan regime, played an "instrumental role" in the shooting.
In March 2011, during the Libyan civil war, British journalists spoke to a man named Omar al-Sodani being held by rebel forces in Benghazi. The 59-year-old member of Libya's Revolutionary Committee said he was in the Libyan Embassy in 1984 but "was not at the scene" when the shooting happened. Following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in August 2011, new evidence emerged that a diplomat working at the Libyan embassy in London was seen firing an automatic weapon from a window in April 1984. A witness identified a man called Abdulmagid Salah Ameri after a review of evidence by an independent Canadian prosecutor at the request of the Metropolitan Police. On 30 August, it was reported that a "co-conspirator", Abdulqadir al-Baghdadi, had been killed in in-fighting amongst Gaddafi loyalists.
In February 2012, Scotland Yard announced that detectives would be returning to Libya to continue their enquiries into the killing. The undertaking followed a visit to London by Libyan Interior Minister Fawzy Abdilal from the National Transitional Council. In June 2012, members of the Metropolitan Police visited Libya as part of the investigation into the unsolved killing.
In July 2012, the Sunday Telegraph named Salah Eddin Khalifa, a high-level member of the former regime, as the pro-Gaddafi student who shot Fletcher. Within minutes of the shooting, he had left the embassy via a back door before it was surrounded by police. Khalifa was said to have moved to another north African city following the disintegration of the Gaddafi government.
In November 2015, a former education minister in Gaddafi's regime was arrested at his home in England on suspicion of conspiracy to murder. The man, believed by The Guardian to be Saleh Ibrahim Mabrouk, had applied for political asylum in the UK following the Libyan Civil War in 2011. Eighteen months later, in May 2017, it became known that a successful prosecution of the suspect was unlikely as some of the evidence could not be presented in court owing to issues of national security.
Two weeks after Fletcher's death, a dedicated charity called the Police Memorial Trust was created to honour British police officers killed in the line of duty. It was the idea of UK film director Michael Winner who wrote a letter to the editor of The Times newspaper suggesting a memorial be erected in Fletcher's honour. After receiving a flood of donations from members of the public, the trust was established on 3 May 1984.
WPC Yvonne Fletcher became the first police officer to be honoured by the trust. On 1 February 1985, her memorial was unveiled in St James's Square by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in a ceremony attended by the leaders of all the main British political parties. Hundreds of members of the public also attended the ceremony to show their support for this recognition of police bravery. In April 2004, Thatcher joined members of WPC Fletcher's family for a service to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of Yvonne's murder. Floral wreaths were laid at her memorial and a police helicopter flew over in a mark of respect. A minute's silence was also observed by those attending.
The memorial, which lies in a part of St James's Square modified by Westminster City Council to accommodate it, is in the north-east corner of the square. The council augmented part of the square for the granite and Portland stone commemorative pillar with a rounded-pavement area of pavement which extends into the roadway to create an architectural feature.
There is also a plaque in Fletcher's memory in Charing Cross Police Station, London. The Police Memorial Trust later commissioned the National Police Memorial, which was unveiled in central London by Queen Elizabeth II on 26 April 2005.
The official inquest concluded that WPC Fletcher was killed by someone firing a 9mm calibre automatic weapon from a lower floor in the Libyan embassy. But this verdict has been disputed by a number of experts, including the British army's senior ballistics officer Lieutenant Colonel George Styles and Home Office pathologist Hugh Thomas. On 24 June 1997, Tam Dalyell MP questioned the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, about the death of Yvonne Fletcher. Dalyell made particular reference to a Channel 4 documentary about the murder:
With the agreement of Queenie Fletcher, her mother, I raised with the Home Office the three remarkable programmes that were made by Fulcrum, and their producer, Richard Bellfield, called Murder in St. James's. Television speculation is one thing, but this was rather more than that, because on film was George Styles, the senior ballistics officer in the British Army, who said that, as a ballistics expert, he believed that the WPC could not have been killed from the second floor of the Libyan embassy, as was suggested.
Also on film was my friend, Hugh Thomas, who talked about the angles at which bullets could enter bodies, and the position of those bodies. Hugh Thomas was, for years, the consultant surgeon of the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast, and I suspect he knows more about bullets entering bodies than anybody else in Britain. Above that was Professor Bernard Knight, who, on and off, has been the Home Office pathologist for 25 years. When Bernard Knight gives evidence on film that the official explanation could not be, it is time for an investigation.
A major issue is the discrepancy in the bullet trajectory noted by the pathologist who examined the body of Yvonne Fletcher. Ian West wrote in his initial post mortem report she was shot from the upper floors of an adjacent building because "the angle of wound was between 60 and 70 degrees". However at the official inquest West stated her wounds were "entirely consistent with a shot fired from the first floor window of the Embassy, an angle of 15 degrees."
In response to Dalyell's comments, David Maclean, the then - Minister of State for Home Affairs, described the Channel 4 programme as "preposterous trash". He said the experts were not to be faulted for their professionalism but their conclusions were wrong because:
The problem with experts looking at evidence 12 years after the event is that none of their opinions has been tested in court before a jury. Dr West's opinions, his analysis of the body and his painstaking reconstruction of the bullet's angle of entry into the body and through the tunic were presented at the inquest. His evidence was tested and the jury believed the evidence that was presented to it. It is preposterous that a programme should do a reconstruction and invite any number of experts—who did not examine the body and who were not present at the time of the incident—to offer opinions and comments when they do not have the full facts ...
[It] is simply not the case that Dr West changed his mind between writing his post mortem report and giving evidence at the inquest. The programme's claim that he did is based on a misreading of the papers and an insufficient understanding of a number of the scientific issues involved—including the fact that the angle from the horizontal of the entry of a bullet into a body lying flat is different from the angle if the body were erect and different again, as was demonstrated experimentally, if the body were turning and the shoulders dropping. I understand that it also remains the view of the police, on the basis of substantial physical evidence collected immediately after the shooting, that the shots that killed Yvonne Fletcher were fired from within the Libyan People's Bureau.
Maclean also criticised Dalyell for reiterating the programme's unfounded claims that the British or American security services may have had something to do with Fletcher's death. He concluded by saying it was the Libyan nationals in the bureau who should be co-operating with the investigation into her murder.
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