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Two Spanish policemen disciplined over death of British man in custody

Source: El Pais - Wed 5th Apr 2017
Two Spanish policemen disciplined over death of British man in custody

Two Spanish police officers have been suspended from duty for five days without pay for failing to prevent the suicide of British tourist Antony Abbott, 36, who died within an hour of his arrest in his cell at Benidorm police station in Spain’s Alicante province in the early hours of October 23, 2015.

A supermarket employee from Bolton, Greater Manchester, Abbott had been drinking heavily on the night of his arrest and had become embroiled in an apparently violent argument over a cigarette lighter with Catherine Corless, his partner of nine years and the mother of his two children, Ellie – then eight, and Louie – seven.

Alarmed, staff at the Hotel Palm Beach called the police who promptly took Abbott into custody. As the father of two was being taken away, he turned to Corless and said, ‘I’m sorry, I will see you soon. I love you’.” Two hours later, Corless was informed that her partner was dead.

An investigation into Abbott’s death revealed that he had deliberately hit his head on the wall of the police station but was left unmonitored in a cell with no surveillance cameras for 18 minutes while one of the policemen left his post without permission and another failed to replace him. During these 18 minutes, Abbott used a blanket and a bar in the cell to take his own life.

The Spanish National Police authorities’ decision to suspend the two officers from duty for five days without pay is the least severe of a range of disciplinary actions stipulated by law.

Lawyer María Ángeles Reyes Bernal, who has been working on the deceased’s partner’s behalf, has alleged that the police failed to inform Benidorm’s examining magistrate of the officers’ misconduct. In response to this allegation, police sources argue that there was no obligation to do so. “One thing is the examining magistrate and another is the disciplinary action,” said a spokesperson.

Though the Spanish investigation into Abbott’s death was closed some time ago, the UK investigation remained open and on March 23 this year the coroner in Manchester concluded that Abbott had died from hanging. His report also described the Benidorm Police Department’s failure to improve their installations as “negligence” and “an important factor.”

In reference to this charge, the coroner cited an internal report from the Spanish Interior Ministry months before Abbot’s death, recommending that installations in Benidorm be modernized to avoid detainees taking their own lives.

Security breaches

The Interior Ministry proposals included putting surveillance cameras in the seven cells at the station, upgrading the doors to avoid “strips of blankets being introduced,” installing buzzers in the cells and repairing the alarm system. The ministry also pointed out that detainees had to shout for attention as the cells were located on the lower ground floor while the security post was on the first floor. In 2015, a total of 324 government employees worked at the police station, but the report flagged the difficulty of monitoring the cells, which have a combined potential occupancy of 12 detainees.

The ministry also referred to the suicide attempt of another detainee in a shared cell on March 26, 2014, using a strip of blanket – the same method Abbott employed.

After 17 months, the UK investigation concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that the Benidorm Police Department acted on any of the Interior Ministry's recommendations. However, a spokesman for the Spanish National Police maintains that at least “some” of the measures have been implemented, though EL PAÍS has tried without success to have this confirmed by the Benidorm Police Department.

The UK report on Antony Abbott’s death, which will be sent to the British Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, demands that measures be adopted to guarantee the security of detainees.

“How can a detainee tear a blanket into pieces to hang himself in a police station?” asks Corless’ lawyer María Ángeles Reyes Bernal, who is preparing to claim “significant” damages from the Spanish Interior Ministry.

Corless, now 30, subsequently denied Abbott was being abusive to her on the night of his arrest and stated that they were planning to marry. She was able to both bring Abbot’s body back to the UK and pay her lawyer through crowdfunding, which raised €7,000.

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