TV SOMALILAND EUROPE
Justice for a man hanged by mistake
By ANDREW LIMO
Only in 1998, a whole 46 years after he was hanged, did Mohamood
Hussein Mattan get acquitted for the murder he did not commit.
It is the British summer of 1952, and a Somali seaman is about to be hanged
for a murder in Cardiff, South Wales. His arrest, trial and conviction had taken
less than seven months.
On the evening before Mattan was hanged, his three children smiled and giggled
as their mother slid them over a bench to bid farewell to their father. Their
innocence added pain to their mother’s pain as she stood watching them through
the separation of glass and iron bars.
As Mattan embraced the children, each struggled for attention to remind Daddy
of the gifts they looked forward to. The strangeness of the prison cells did
not distract them from the accustomed ritual. He always returned from long journeys
with gifts that provoked their playmates’ envy. Fighting back hot tears, Laura
glanced at her husband, who only managed to return an equally empty stare. For
once, they missed a score in the all-is-well game parents play so well with
Mattan earned the dubious recognition of being the last man to be legally hanged
in Cardiff. He was one of the many Somali seamen who left their native land
in the 1940s, then under British governance, to seek a fortune in the high seas.
The youngest of four brothers whose descendants can now be traced to Tanzania
and Kenya, he toiled in those noisy, smoky engine rooms, stoking the coals that
powered the huge merchant ships.
He had arrived in Cardiff to better paid work and the attentions of a local
girl, Laura Williams, who would soon become his wife. Living in the multi-cultural
Tiger Bay area of the docks, Mattan embraced the western lifestyle with a gratifying
sense of achievement, oblivious that his journey to a scaffold had just begun.
Mattan was caught in a police dragnet after a 42-year-old Jewish spinster was
found lying in a pool of blood. Her throat had been slit with a razor and some
£100 was missing.
In his defence, Mattan – a person with obvious fluency problems in the English
language – had little to say other than that he was innocent, accusing the police
and key witnesses of framing him. His only defence was the alibi that he was
at the pictures on the night of the murder.
Sick and ageing, Laura now says that all through the trial, her husband was
confident the police would find the real killer and set him free and even pay
him some compensation. So Mattan was distraught to hear Justice Ormerod conclude
on July 24, 1952 that he should “suffer death by hanging”.
On the day of the hanging, Laura agonised with the little children outside Cardiff
Prison. Then came the stabbing words from a warden: “He went without a
It is now real. He was no more. Shattered, she summoned all her strength and
dragged her children on the long and lonely journey to their home at Ely.
Her husband’s last words had been that it would be the wish of Allah rather
than the strength of evidence that would take his life. He even told the religious
leader that he had nothing to confess. Years later, Laura was to summon the
same willpower and fight for justice beyond the grave. She would not rest till
her husband was cleared of a crime she and many others believed he did not commit.
Killing the pain
Mervin Mattan, the youngest of three brothers tells the story of his father’s
death as though it happened yesterday. “They don’t know who they’ve killed.
Every time the word ‘hang’, ‘execution’ comes up, I get terrible pains.”
It is April, 2000, and he still cannot understand why his mother had no friends
to stand by her on that fateful afternoon. “Why did she have to walk all
the way home, alone?”
Walking down St Mary’s Street, Cardiff City, with Mervin, one can hear a newspaper
vendor shout: “Big issue, big issue gentlemen”.
Without looking at him, Mervin snarls back, “I am an issue on my own.”
Easily irritated and often fighting, Mervin is indeed an issue unto himself
and even to friends. But he can be warm and humorous. He is tall, brown and
slightly stoops to the left. His left eye remains badly damaged from one of
the many “dock wars”.
Cardiff Docks, also known as Tiger Bay, is an enclave containing up to 50 different
nationalities in one square mile. Once there, you are no longer in Wales. A
local historian, Neil Sinclair, described it as “a world unto itself”.
Mervin admits he drinks to kill the emotional pain. Then what about the fighting?
“That takes care of the physical pain,” he stammers back, choking
on saliva and a convulsive urgency to tear down someone or something.
Mattan’s last child is also bitter that he wasn’t told about his father’s death
till he was 21. “When I learnt about it, I flipped over and never came
back. My elder brother David was four … and has been that since, anyway.”
The second child, Omar has not had it better either. He recalls the bullying
at school and the scolding the family received from the neighbours. The most
upsetting thing was seeing his mother cry.
Yet Omar could not understand why they were singled out as “sons of a murderer”.
When he asked his mother what they meant, she promised to tell him later in
life, when he would be grown up.
She always told them their father died at sea. So, like Mervin, Omar started
going to the docks where they once lived, to enquire among the Somalis. That
is how he met the community leader, Mahmood Kalinda. He revealed it all. Like
his younger brother, Mervin, too, flipped over. He left school, drunk, stole
and ended up in prison. He was often taunted that the very cell he was confined
in was once inhabited by a Somali man who was hanged.
From the glances of the inhabitants of this part of Butetown, Mervin is a known
reveller. He would pass by from his shift at the electricity generating company
before taking a taxi to his wife, Linnet, and their three children at Ely. Not
far from the home is the expansive well-kept cemetery where the remains of old
Mattan were recently reburied after being moved from Cardiff Prison. The family
now plans to put a headstone on the grave to mark his position in the graveyard.
Unlike the other ultimate destinations, the Western Cemetery is green and beautiful.
Mervin has banter for it: “Many are dying to get there!”
The din in Ship and Pilot tavern does not distract 63-year-old Barbara Wilson
from paying special attention to her loyal patron and his guest. On sitting
down, Mervin is given a double of something. Barbs, as they all call her, is
undisputedly a charming lady. Her smiles and wit defy her age. There is no wasting
time with the niceties of introduction. She is “a mixture of everything”.
Barbara was a young girl when it all happened.
“Everybody knew Mattan and his wife Laura. They were a lovely couple …
didn’t bother nobody. Oh, that man did not commit that murder … definitely
not!” The recollection spreads bitterness on her face, mugging its radiance
and mirroring her real age.
The antiques hung all over tell the epic of a sea life long gone. Then without
warning a commotion erupts. Mervin is cursing, his fists bunched. Someone moves
to quell the quarrel, with pleas of “for-my-sake Mervin”. Uneasy calm
returns but many more such incidents are to recur.
Outsidse on a bench facing the vast Atlantic Ocean, Mervin bursts into song.
The pent-up grief has found a fissure. It is Ottis Redding. The tune? “Sittin’on
the Dock of the bay…. wasting time …”
What the heavy and shrill voice could not express, the long arms and sullen
face do. The bout of aggression seems pacified as emotions waft into the sea
and are embraced by the returning waves. Slowly, the horizon begins to recede
as it always does.
When Cardiff lawyer Bernard de Maid learnt of Laura’s woes, he decided to appeal
against Mattan’s conviction and sentence.
De Maid argued that the prosecution’s prime witness, Harold Cover, was not credible.
Cover did not attend an identification parade but had instead made a dock identification
of the appellant. Then, in May, 1969, Cover was himself convicted of the attempted
murder of his daughter, by cutting her throat with a razor. He was sentenced
to life imprisonment.
Police investigating the Volpert murder interviewed another Somali, Gass Tahir,
but the entries were made in a notebook of one Detective Roberts and never presented
to the court at the time. Two years later, in 1955, Tahir was tried and found
guilty by reason of insanity.
In February, 1998, 46 years after he had died and been buried, the court of
appeal quashed his conviction, absolving Mahmood Hussein Mattan of the murder
of Lily Volpert, a Butetown shopkeeper. Had the court in London been presented
with the new evidence which had been made available then, it would have spared
In quashing the conviction, the court of appeal judges noted that capital punishment
was not perhaps a prudent culmination for a criminal justice system, which is
human and, therefore, fallible. The Home Office paid an interim compensation
of £5,000 to the family in Christmas, 1999. But Laura says no amount of
money will bring back her husband.
In November 2001, the Mattans had received a further compensation and had bought
a new house. Linnet was driving and the little grand children of Mohamood Mattan
had a computer to play with.
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