It took a 50 year fight to overturn the convictions of Basil Peterkin and Saliah Mehmet posthumously (Picture: National Geographic Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Two rail workers jailed for theft after an investigation by a racist and corrupt cop had their convictions overturned this week after a 50-year fight.

Basil Peterkin and Saliah Mehmet were sent to prison in 1977 for robbing the British Rail depot where they worked. They died in 2021 and 1991 respectively, still protesting their innocence. 

The Court of Appeal heard on Thursday that the pair were convicted on the evidence of the “dishonest, corrupt and racist” detective sergeant Derek Ridgewell.

In 1980, Ridgewell and his British Transport Police (BTP) colleagues, detectives constable Douglas Ellis and detective constable Alan Keeling, were convicted and jailed for stealing £364,000 worth of property. 

The loot came from the very same depot that they had alleged Mehmet and Peterkin had stolen from.

Ridgewell was sentenced to seven years in jail and died there. The other two got six- and two-year sentences respectively.

At the Court of Appeal, barrister Henry Blaxland blasted the BTP for failing to sack Ridgwell in 1973. Then, a series of prosecutions were dismissed over allegations of “police violence” and corruption. 

He said during one hearing in London, magistrates were “so disturbed by the allegations against Ridgewell that they said there should be an investigation”.

Blaxland continued, “What might have been expected at that point is that the BTP would conduct a thorough investigation in the hope [Ridgewell] would have been dismissed. Instead he was transferred to a different section.”

He also criticised the BTP’s failure to review all the convictions based on Ridgewell’s evidence. It meant Ridgwell was free to “effectively fit up” Peterkin and Mehmet.

In February 1972, he arrested four men at Waterloo station. The case was thrown out on the basis that Ridgewell’s evidence could not be believed, but he was not punished.

A month later he arrested four men–known as the Oval Four–for allegedly stealing passengers’ handbags. They were each jailed for eight months but their convictions would be overturned in 2019 and 2020.

One of them was Winston Trew, now 70, who spent nearly 50 years trying to clear his name. Trew said the experience “destroyed his life”–and he warned there could be “hundreds” of others yet to bring their cases before the courts.

“Will we be outside this court again making a similar statement?” he asked. “Although it was DS Ridgewell who framed the innocent, the prosecutions were endorsed and taken to court by the British Transport Police.”

Matt Foot, solicitor for the Mehmet and Peterkin families, agrees, saying the case continues to raise troubling questions for the BTP. And, he says, there’s an urgent need for “an independent review of Ridgewell’s case files to root out all the other wrongful convictions he caused.

“The force which harboured the corrupt and racist Ridgewell for so long cannot be trusted to ensure all his victims can access justice,” he says.

In 2021, the BTP publicly stated it had reviewed its files for any other wrongful convictions associated with Ridgewell. Yet it failed to refer the Peterkin and Mehmet case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the public body which can grant new appeals.   

Foot is now demanding a change in the law. It would automatically trigger an independent review whenever a police officer receives a custodial sentence. The review would be aimed at identifying any miscarriages of justice they may have been responsible for.

And, the men’s families are calling for a fresh, independent review of Ridgewell’s case files, so that all other innocent victims he framed can access justice.

After the hearing, Regu Saliah, the eldest son of Saliah Mehmet, talked about his dad and the case. “What he was put through over those years left a traumatic legacy that stayed with him his whole life,” he said. 

“The injustice he suffered he never managed to comprehend but even harder for him was knowing that his incarceration left my mother and I penniless and homeless in 1970s London.

“As a family we find it extremely difficult to understand why the BTP failed to initiate a review into my father’s case when Ridgewell was convicted so soon after.

“We are bitterly disappointed that to this day we have had no contact from the BTP to explain their actions and, more importantly, their inactions.”

Eleven people have so far had their Ridgewell convictions quashed. But how many more still carry the scars from Britain’s institutionally racist police?

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