The murder of 7-year-old Muslim child in Cardiff, Wales in 2010 brought his mother and father to trial. Did the jury convict the wrong parent?
Arranged marriages are an integral part of Indian Hindu and Muslim culture. Parents, and family members, become involved in the search for a prospective bride or groom through acquaintances, advertisements or marriage brokers. In modern India there has been a move towards flexibility. However, there are still marriages where the bride and groom see each other for the first time at the wedding ceremony. The family will consider several factors such as background, wealth, social status, caste and education. More and more young women in India are university educated and the families are taking that into consideration when choosing a suitable partner.
The custom of arranged marriages in India can be traced back to the 4th century. It began as a means to unite, and maintain, the upper caste system. Eventually it spread to the lower caste as a way of staying within their social status and preventing unsuitable “love” matches. Even today 95 percent of Indian marriages are arranged.
In the Muslim faith it is the responsibility of the parents to provide for the upbringing, education and marriage of their children. Parents have the responsibility to arrange suitable, hopefully happy, marriages for their daughters. Female offspring are considered to be made for someone else’s house. Parents of sons have the responsibility to seek out eligible, suitable females for marriage. When a possible bride has been identified it is the father of the groom who meets with the bride’s father to reach an agreement as to the suitability of the couple. A dowry will be discussed, presents exchanged and the ceremony date agreed.
The marriage ceremony can often be the first time bride and groom see each other and will not even speak until after the ceremony. During the ceremony both are asked if they are in agreement to the marriage. When they acknowledge their agreement, the Koran is read and a pre-arranged dowry is confirmed. The paying of a dowry is culturally optional, and now legally unlawful, but is still practiced and can be a very important part of the marriage agreement. Once the marriage contract is signed the bride immediately goes to live in her husband’s family home.
It is considered a shame on an Indian family if a daughter remains unmarried over the age of 24.
All cultures have practiced arranged marriages, be they for dynastic, financial or political reasons. In fact the modern day “on line dating” websites are just marriage brokers but don’t call themselves that. The hope of finding a suitable partner is the reason that people, in Western society, sign up and pay for introductions.
With a lot of young Indian men living in the West, especially England, there is a shortage of eligible marriage partners. That has created a growing need for marriage brokers.
Sara, daughter of Nafees Ahmed and Mohamed Ali Khan, was part of a large extended family and had a happy home life with her antique dealer father, mother and two brothers in the city of Hyderabad, India. She was educated at a Catholic school prior to university where she gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics and statistics.
In 2000 Sara’s parents felt the time had come for her to marry, she was 20 years of age. They registered with a marriage bureau, which is on a par with dating agencies in Europe and the United States.
The bureau presented Yousuf Ali Ege to Sara’s parents for consideration. They were told he was a 26-year-old, educated man with a BA and a Masters degree, had a good job as the manager at a branch of The Royal Mail in Cardiff, Wales. Cardiff is the capital city of Wales which like Scotland and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Yousuf’s parents had registered their son with the same bureau as distance and time had made the selection of a bride difficult. Neither family had met prior to the introduction by the bureau.
Within a week of Sara’s registration with the agency, her parents accepted Yousuf Ali Ege as a suitable husband for their daughter. A visit by the future groom’s family took place on the following Wednesday and the wedding ceremony performed on the Friday. Because of Yousuf’s urgency to return to his job in Cardiff the usual weeks, or even years, of wedding preparation was outweighed. There was no conversation between the couple prior to the marriage.
Sara grew up in the knowledge that her parents loved her and would only want the best for her. She accepted and trusted them to find her a suitable, equally well educated life partner. Within days of her marriage she found herself thousands of miles away from family and friends in a strange country. She soon became aware that she was married to a man with a limited, O’ Level education, (barely high school), was a mail delivery man and part-time taxi driver. The marriage was unhappy from the start. After several miscarriages and three years of marriage, Sara gave birth, through IVF treatment, to a son, Yaseen.
Even though she was very unhappy in her marriage, in Sara’s culture it was unthinkable for her to return home to her parents. It would be considered a shame on the whole family and she would be looked upon as an “unwanted” married woman and a burden.
The Murder of 7-Year-Old Yaseen
On July 12, 2010, fire fighters rushed to a fire at a residential home in Cardiff after receiving a call from a hysterical woman who said her 7-year-old son, Yaseen, was still inside the burning house. The fire was quickly extinguished and firefighters found the boy’s badly burnt body and immediately applied CPR. Firefighter Richard Higson felt something wasn’t right as the body was rigid and hot. The face was not swollen and there was no soot in the mouth. An ambulance rushed Yaseen to the nearest hospital but he was declared dead en route. His mother, Sara Ege, was suffering from smoke inhalation and, accompanied by her husband, was taken in a separate ambulance to the hospital.
Yaseen’s father told police that his son had not gone to school that day as there was going to be a “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” and the boy did not have a teddy bear. Family, friends and neighbors were traumatised by this tragic accident. Flowers and teddy bears were placed by saddened neighbors, school children and friends outside the home.
However, within days a post mortem revealed the shocking truth. Prior to his death, Yaseen had suffered a catalogue of systematic physical abuse. His body had multiple injuries to his abdomen, broken ribs, a fractured arm and finger and the little boy was dead prior to the fire.
Both parents were questioned by the police. Within a few days, in a taped confession, Sara told police that she had killed her son for his failure to learn and recite parts of the Koran. Several weeks later she retracted this confession. Her husband, Yousuf, denied all knowledge of any abuse or beatings his son may have received. Sara was charged with the murder of Yaseen. Yousuf Ali Ege was charged with causing or allowing the death of his son by failing to act.
The Trial of Sara and Yousuf Ali Ege
The trial opened in May 2012 at Cardiff Crown Court. Prosecutor Ian Murphy informed the jury that Sara, in her taped confession, had told police how she had beaten Yaseen regularly with a stick. On the day of the boy’s death she had beaten him until he had collapsed, still murmuring extracts from the Koran. She left her son lying on the floor and upon returning, some 10 minutes later, found him shivering and shaking and within minutes she realised he was dead. She then poured barbecue lighter fluid over the body to cover up the recent and old injuries she had inflicted.
At trial, her defense counsel, Peter Murphy, (not to be confused with Prosecutor Ian Murphy), said Sara had been a victim of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband just days into the marriage.
Testifying in her own defense, Sara told the court she did not cause her son’s death and that it was her husband who was responsible for Yaseen’s death. She said her husband had beaten his son causing the abdominal and other injuries which led to his death. She also said her confession to the police had been given in fear for her life as she had been threatened by Yousuf and his family. She said she had loved her little boy very much and would never have done anything to hurt him.
When the prosecution showed Sara’s taped confession to the jury, an emotional Sara was allowed to leave the court. The harrowing confession gave details of how she had beaten Yaseen “like a dog” regularly as she had become increasingly frustrated by his inability to master the Koran to the level of the older boys at their mosque.
Sections of unrecorded interviews were also read out to the court in which the defendant said she was out of control, had beaten her son regularly for no reason, had tried to stop but was unable to. “He was so good, he never complained about anything. I just blame my anger, I lost control. I cannot put all this together. There was no intention in me to harm my son.”
The court heard evidence from a class teacher at Yaseen’s school who, as far back as 2007, had noticed an injury on the boy’s hand. When questioned as to how the injury had occurred Yaseen told him that his mother had hit him with a ruler. The teacher brought this matter to the attention of the head teacher who asked to speak with whichever parent came to collect Yaseen. That afternoon it was his mother who came for him.
There was some confusion as the head teacher, whose name was withheld by a court order, had initially denied ever having spoken with Mrs. Ege regarding her son’s injury, but recalled it later. He said he had no concerns about inviting Sara Ege, whose educational background had impressed him, to be a volunteer classroom assistant with other pupils at the school.
The head teacher asked Sara about the injury and she said that Yaseen had been naughty at home and she had hit him. The head teacher told her “We all lose our tempers but we are not allowed to do that.” She then asked was he naughty at school? The answer was “no.”
Peter Birkitt, the defence attorney for Yousuf Ali Ege, then addressed the court. He said there was no evidence that the father was aware of the suffering and injuries inflicted by his wife on Yaseen. As far as he was aware, Sara was a concerned, caring and devoted mother and he had never received a complaint from his young son. He went on to say that Yousuf had two jobs which meant he was seldom in the home. He did not have the advantage of teachers who were with Yaseen six hours a day to see his pain. The school had discussed their concerns only with the mother and had not brought it to the attention of the father.
Questions were raised as to the behaviour of Yousuf Ali Ege on the day of the fire. To some of those at the scene it appeared he was already aware of his son’s death upon his arrival to the home.
Prosecutor Ian Murphy, in closing, said Sara had promised Yaseen a bicycle if he had been perfect in the first two chapters of the Koran by July 19, 2010. When the boy did not meet these expectations there was an explosion of anger which resulted in Yaseen’s death.
Judge Royce summed up the six-week trial by telling the eight female and four male jurors to put all emotion aside in making a decision as to who was, and who was not, telling the truth. He said “You must approach your task dispassionately, calmly and fairly.”
He went on to say, in order to convict Sara Ege they had to be sure she caused the injuries which led to Yaseen’s death, that she failed to get medical attention and that she set him on fire. If they were to find she did kill her son, but was suffering from an abnormality of mind at the time, then they should find her guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
To convict Yousuf Ali Ege, Judge Royce told the jury that they would have to be sure that he knew, or should have known, his son could be at risk and failed to take steps to protect him.
After three days of deliberation, the jurors returned to the court saying they were unable to reach a verdict on either of the accused. They also said that even with more time they would be unable to do so. Judge Royce then discharged the jury and the case was listed for retrial.
On October 31, 2012, the retrial of Sara and Yousuf Ali Ege opened in Cardiff Crown Court. As in the first trial, Sara Ege was charged with the murder of her son andYousuf Ali Ege with causing, or allowing, the death of his son by failing to act. Both the accused denied the charges. This time a jury of 10 men and two women were empanelled.
In his opening statement to the jury, Prosecutor Ian Murphy stated that Sara Ege had inflicted the violence on her son with the intention to kill or cause serious harm. She then set fire to his body in an attempt to hide the many injuries he had suffered prior to and on the day of his death. He said medical evidence would be presented describing the injuries which Yousuf must have seen as he had shared a bed with his son.
During the trial, the jury was shown the harrowing taped confession that Sara had made to the police just days after Yaseen’s death. In this tape, Sara described how she had beaten her son after she got angry with him because he was having difficulty reciting verses of the Koran to her required standard. When he collapsed, she dragged him to the kitchen to give him some milk, he sipped the drink and was then brought to a bedroom to change his clothes. She left him for about 10 minutes believing he had fallen asleep. When she returned she found him shaking, shivering and gulped a final breath before dying. She said she panicked and decided to burn his body with barbecue lighter to hide his injuries.
In the tape, Sara said she was out of control and beat her son for almost no reason. She also told police that on one occasion Yaseen had gone to school unable to sit due to a beating. He was sent home by the school. Sara switched him to another school, informing the principal that her son had a leg injury that prevented him from sitting.
Firefighter Richard Higson reprised his testimony from the first trial, telling the jury that on his arrival to the Ege home that he noticed the badly burnt body of 7-year-old Yaseen was unusually rigid and hot. He said the whole situation “didn’t seem to add up, things were not usual.” He said when the father arrived home Sara said, “He’s burnt, he’s burnt, and he’s actually burnt” and Yousuf, in a very calm manner, asked “but is he alive?” Higson said he felt that the boy was dead but did not tell this to the parents as he was trying to be “very discreet.” However, he had the impression that Sara already knew her son was dead. He also told the court that the father had appeared unusually calm under such circumstances.
Peter Birkitt for the defense of Yousuf Ali Ege called Dr. Robert Reeves, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, to the stand. Dr. Reeves agreed that Sara had given four, starkly contrasting stories about the events leading up to the death of Yaseen. Dr. Reeves told the court that there were signs of Mrs. Ege having a depressive illness and psychosis before and at the time of her son’s death. He admitted that he found it difficult to accept Mrs. Ege’s claim that she heard voices telling her to beat her son.
Sara Ege followed Dr. Reeves into the witness box. She began her testimony by describing her upbringing in India, her education and her arranged marriage to Yousuf Ali Ege. She stated that she had not hurt Yaseen; it was her husband who was responsible. She said a couple of years prior to the boy’s death staff at two primary schools had drawn her attention to her son being in pain and was advised to take him to a doctor. She had not done this as Yousuf had told her Yaseen would be taken away from her by Social Services.
Sara continued her testimony by saying that the large wooden stick, referred to in her taped confession, was used by her husband to beat both Yaseen and herself. She claimed her confession to the police had been because she feared for her life after threats from her husband and his family. Describing the day of Yaseen’s death she said “Me and Yousuf were arguing in the playroom and he punched me and kicked me to my stomach on the floor. I was screaming and Yaseen came into the playroom and tried to help me saying ‘Don’t hurt mummy.’ Yousuf then beat Yaseen and kicked him twice.”
She had wanted to take her son to the hospital but her husband would not allow her to. The court was told that her husband had beaten her regularly throughout their marriage and had also beaten Yaseen.
The court then heard from Sara’s mother, Mrs. Nafees Ahmed, who said that in 2007 she and her husband were made aware that Yousuf had been arrested for hitting their daughter. They were visited at their home in India by Yousuf’s family who threatened to kill them and their family if anything happened to their son. Mrs.Ahmed told the court that her daughter loved her son and was a good mother. She also said that Sara had never told her she had beaten Yaseen.
Even though they knew that Sara was unhappy in her marriage they had told her “you are married now and you have to make it work, it is a matter of honor and respect.”
Medical evidence was given detailing injuries suffered, at various times, by Mrs. Ege, allegedly caused by her husband. The court was told that Sara had visited the Accident and Emergency unit of a local hospital at least half a dozen times with suspicious injuries. In one incident in 2007, Yousuf had called for an ambulance after an alleged assault on his wife. Paramedics left the scene when he became aggressive towards them and notified the police. When the police arrived at the home, Yousuf dismissed claims he had punched his wife and said she had suffered a “nick” on her lip from his arm and a punch to her chest, unwittingly, when she had “lunged at him during an argument.” Yousuf was arrested but later released as Sara refused to press charges.
Sara’s defense attorney, Peter Murphy, questioned Yousuf Ali Ege about alleged hostility towards his wife from his family because she had suffered several miscarriages and might not be able to have children. Yousuf said, “That is nonsense.” He said his wife had invented all the allegations against him.
When questioned by his own barrister, Peter Birkitt, Yousuf said he had never seen Sara punish Yaseen and she had only ever raised her voice to him in anger. He again stressed that he was totally unaware that Yaseen had suffered any physical violence at all. He said when the post mortem results were told to him he was very shocked.
In her testimony, Sara told the court that her husband had enrolled Yaseen in advanced classes at their local Mosque as they wanted him to become “Hafiz” – an Islamic term for someone who memorizes the Koran. She admitted to becoming frustrated and angry when her son was not reaching the expected level by the deadline.
The case went to the jury on December 5, 2012. After eight hours of deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty in the case of Sara Ege for the murder of her son. The jury also found her guilty of perverting the course of justice by burning his body. Upon hearing the verdict Sara Ege broke down sobbing.
Judge Wyn Williams told her she faced a term of life imprisonment.
Yousuf Ali Ege was found not guilty in causing or allowing the death of his son by failing to protect him. He left the court without showing any emotion.
The judge told the court that he would determine a minimum sentence for Sara Ege in the New Year after a medical report had been completed.
After the verdict was announced, District Crown Prosecutor Deborah Rogers, who formed the team for the prosecution and had not appeared in court, made a public statement on behalf of the DCP. She said “the deeply tragic nature of this case is all too apparent. We should not forget that at the heart of the case is the loss of a bright and friendly young boy who had his whole life ahead of him. It is therefore right that the circumstances of Yaseen’s death were fully examined in a criminal court.”
The verdict caused an outcry of disbelief in Cardiff and beyond. There was a history of physical and mental abuse by Yousuf to his wife and by implication also to his son, Yaseen. Women’s groups, and others, have taken up the case for Sara to have her verdict overturned and are calling for a further investigation into the actions of Yousouf during their married life. Questions have also been raised as to whether the female to male ratio on the respective juries in both trials played a part in the final verdict.
On December 8, 2012, Judge Wyn Williams passed a sentence of life and ordered that Sara serve a minimum of 17 years before she can be considered for parole. On hearing the sentence, Sara collapsed and had to be helped from the court room.
Her defense has submitted an application for appeal.