March 2010

Jail for couple who starved the seven-year-old to death

A mother and stepfather who starved a seven-year-old child to death were given indefinite jail sentences today after they had earlier been convicted of manslaughter.

Angela Gordon, 35, was told by a judge at Birmingham crown court that she would serve at least 15 years before becoming eligible for parole and her partner, Junaid Abuhamza, 31, was told he would serve a minimum term of seven and a half years.

Mr Justice Roderick Evans told them the regime of punishment suffered by seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq was “chilling in its harshness and cruelty”. Turning to Gordon, he said her cruelty was horrific and made worse because she was Khyra’s mother.

The pair had been cleared of the murder of Khyra during a trial at the court, but convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility owing to their mental health problems.

They admitted child cruelty charges relating to five other children in their care who were also starved and abused. Two of the children, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were suffering from malnutrition and were close to death.

Neither defendant displayed any reaction as they were sentenced.

The judge said: “It is not right to say that these children suffered from neglect. Neglect is an inadequate and inappropriate description of the way they were treated. Rather, they were subjected to a domestic regime of punishment which was chilling in its harshness and cruelty.

“A regime introduced by you, Abuhamza, as it had its origins in your own upbringing, but a regime to which you, Gordon, became a party.”

Khyra died at her home in Handsworth, Birmingham, in May 2008, even though there were shelves full of groceries, tins of sweets and bowls of fresh fruit in the house. The foodstuffs were locked away from Khyra and the five other children; a lock was fitted high on the kitchen doors to keep the children away. If the children were caught taking any of the food, they were made to stand outside in the cold and were beaten or forced to overeat until they vomited.

The court heard evidence that Abuhamza was suffering from schizophrenia and as a child he witnessed his father beating a sister to death. Gordon was severely depressed at the time of her daughter’s death.

At her death, Khyra weighed 16.8kg (2st 9lb). She had lost about 40% of her body fat and her body mass index was so low it was off the bottom of the scale of medical charts. Her emaciated body had 60 injuries, the outcome of a sadistic regime which included punishment beatings, cold baths and being forced to overeat until she was sick.

Khyra was taken out of school six months before her death, and her mother claimed to be educating her at home. Despite visits by educational officials, they never saw the children, who were supposedly in bed after having a late night.

A neighbour believed Khyra scavenged stale bread left out for the birds. Gordon claimed Khyra was adequately fed. However, this assertion was part of an elaborate lie designed to convince the authorities that nothing was amiss.

A 12-year-old girl who also lived at the house recalled the regime. “Khyra stole bread from the kitchen or something from the cooker,” she said. “Junaid told her ‘you’ve won a prize, you’ve got a nice treat’. He gave her a jar of chocolate and told her to eat it all. It made her feel really ill and it made her vomit.”

Another child recalled Khyra being asleep in her mother’s lap two days before her death. Gordon was spraying her daughter’s face with water but she did not wake. In the days leading up to her death, he said, he could see the bones through her skin as she slept. The children, he said, took lessons in the lounge and were punished if they did not answer correctly.

Screams and cries of “let me out” had reportedly been heard coming from the house. One neighbour said she saw Khyra whimpering in the back garden before her death, dressed just in her underwear.

The court ruling told of Abuhamza’s “strong belief” in evil spirits. It described Gordon as feisty and outspoken but often “highly dependent upon the men in her life”. At one point she took up a “healthy eating” diet. “Food was an issue for her and she seemed unable to understand that whilst it may well have been appropriate for her to lose weight, it was certainly not appropriate for these growing children to do the same,” read the ruling.

Detective Inspector Sean Russell, who investigated Khyra’s starvation, said the harrowing nature of her death had made the most hardened officers cry.

He believed the little girl had been kept a prisoner in a bedroom. “The very people who should have been looking after Khyra, her mother and Junaid Abuhamza, killed her through systematic abuse,” he said.

Khyra’s death was ultimately caused by an overwhelming infection brought on by severe malnutrition.