Two men have had their names posthumously cleared after they were “fitted up” on the word of one of Britain’s most corrupt police officers.
British Rail workers Basil Peterkin and Saliah Mehmet died with wrongful convictions after racist British Transport Police officer Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell accused them of theft from a site he later admitted stealing from.
Their 1977 convictions for conspiracy to steal from the goods depot where they worked were today overturned almost 50 years later after the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred them to the Court of Appeal.
The court heard that the subsequent conviction of DS Ridgewell in 1980 for stealing £364,000 of property from the same depot represented fresh evidence which made the convictions unsafe. Ridgewell died of a heart attack in prison in 1982 at the age of 37.
The CCRC has referred a total of 11 cases which relied on his evidence back to court, after investigating the officer’s “historical racist and corrupt practices”.
Overturning their convictions to a courtroom filled with Mr Peterkin and Mr Mehment’s family and friends, Lord Justice Holroyde said: “A most important matter was not put before the jury which was not then known was that the principal prosecution witnesses were themselves engaged in the very same criminal activity as that which they alleged against Mr Peterkin and the co-accused.
“If the jury had been aware of that fact it would have been very telling.”
He added: “It is very unfortunate that so many years have passed before the injustice which the appellants and their families have suffered can be rectified and that the appellants have not lived to learn of their vindication.”
Mr Peterkin and Mr Mehmet were sent to prison for nine months in 1977 for robbing the British Rail depot at the Bricklayers Arms in Southwark, south London.
They protested their innocence for their entire lives before Mr Peterkin died aged 51 in August 1991 and Mr Mehmet passed away aged 75 in August 2021.
Henry Blaxland KC, for the appellants, said the two men were “effectively fitted up” by the corrupt officer, who should have been sacked in 1973 when a series of prosecutions were dismissed over allegations of “police violence” and corruption.
He said: “What might have been expected at that point is that the BTP would conduct a thorough investigation in the hope that [Ridgewell] would have been dismissed. Instead he was transferred to a different section.”
Mr Blaxland also criticised a “systemic failure” by BTP, who did not review all the convictions based on Ridgewell’s evidence after he was himself jailed.
“Mr Ridgewell should have been sacked in 1973 there’s absolutely no doubt about that. Secondly, the convictions – all of the convictions – which were derived from evidence which he gave should then have been investigated,” he told the hearing.
In emotional statements outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Mr Mehmet and Mr Peterkin’s families called for a new law to ensure that the cases of police officers convicted of a crime are reviewed.
Mr Mehmet’s son Regu Saliah said he and his mother were left “penniless and homeless” after his father was wrongly jailed, while DS Ridgewell “was kept in his position of power where he continued to victimise families like ours”.
Although today’s judgement brings “some relief”, he added: “Regrettably, though, our father doesn’t get to experience this judgment today, he passed away two years ago.
“He lived as a victim of DS Ridgewell, the corrupt and racist police officer, for over 43 years. What he was put through those years left a traumatic legacy that stayed with him his whole life, unfortunately.”
Despite learning of DS Ridgewell’s conviction just three years after his father was jailed – no review was triggered to “give him his life back”.
“Instead, it’s taken 46 years for this conviction to be reversed and the fact that he was a victim has only just been acknowledged as a result.”
He added: “We hope that this will prompt a new law that following police officers receiving a prison sentence there is an automatic independent review of the cases that they were involved in so that no other family goes through what we had to go through.”
Mr Peterkin’s daughter Janice described her father as a “law-abiding citizen and a family man” who did not deserve to go to prison.
“Basil was unfairly targeted and framed by the ex-policeman Ridgwell who was clearly racist and corrupt,” she added.
“We also call for a reform of the law so that when a police officer is sent to prison there is an automatic and independent review of their files for wrongful conviction.”
Helen Pitcher OBE, chair of CCRC, urged anyone else who believes they are a victim of a miscarriage of justice involving DS Ridgewell to contact them.
While BTP’s Chief Constable Lucy D’Orsi said the force is “appalled” by actions of the corrupt officer.
“My colleagues and I are profoundly sorry to all those affected by DS Ridgewell’s atrocious actions and the trauma that victims and their families suffered as a result,” she said.
“I would like to reiterate my sincere apology for the trauma caused to the British African community by a corrupt BTP officer, whose misuse of his powers caused harm not only to the innocent young people criminalised, but also to their families and community.”