“What’s so interesting about me?” asks Imran Khan. “I’m just doing my job.”
Khan is one of the most highly regarded human rights lawyers in the country, responsible for getting justice for the families of Stephen Lawrence, Victoria Climbié and Zahid Mubarek. And yet, the slight figure sitting in an ordinary office, files lining the walls and police sirens echoing along the busy street outside, quietly refuses to acknowledge there might be anything exceptional about him.
He made his name when he accepted the case of Stephen Lawrence over 20 years ago, the reverberations of which are still felt today.
This case, of a black teenager murdered while waiting for a bus in South East London, would continue for 19 years, change the law on double jeopardy and shine an unflattering light on police corruption and institutional racism.
But back in 1993 it was just another case.
“I couldn’t have known it would have turned into one of the most famous cases I’d ever deal with,” says Khan. “Had I known, I think I would have been terrified.”
Khan’s involvement in the case was pure chance. He took it on when he was just 18 months qualified, and soon found himself working with barrister Michael Mansfield QC. He had watched Mansfield at work from the public gallery just a few years before, as an aspiring lawyer.
A barrister friend had recommended him, as a solicitor specialising in actions against the police, to Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, who were frustrated at the police’s inaction.
Doreen and Neville requested that Khan write a letter to the police formally requesting information about where the investigation into Stephen’s murder was heading.
Khan suspected police wrongdoing almost immediately but kept his thoughts to himself.
“I was careful not to suggest that to the family,” he explains. “There were lots of people advising them and I didn’t want to go in and tell them it was all down to racism. If I’d got that wrong they’d never have been able to trust me.
“They had to find out for themselves. Things wouldn’t progress as they were meant to and the penny finally dropped for them. They asked me, ‘Do you think it might be because they’re racist?’”
Khan, Mansfield and a team of around 15 others comprising lawyers, police officers and scientists built a case against the murder suspects, instigating a private prosecution as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) refused to countenance a public prosecution, saying that there was not enough evidence.
Twenty years later, this still rankles with Khan.
“The CPS has gone around saying they told me not to go ahead with it,” he says. “And they did. But bear in mind that at the same time there was a murder of a young white boy in Somers Town in North London.
“I was defending five or six Bengali youths on that case and the evidence was spurious to say the least. It was circumstantial and negligible. One of the cases was thrown out at half-time when we got to the Old Bailey.
“I was doing two cases in parallel – in one the defendants were white and in the other the defendants were not white. You wonder – if the CPS is prepared to prosecute on the basis of this evidence, why is it not prepared to prosecute on the basis of that evidence?”
Khan terms the private prosecution’s collapse “one of the darkest days of my career”, but insists he’s “not one for regrets”.
“The bad stuff has led to good stuff,” he explains. “Whether you believe in fate or destiny or the stars coming together, it happened.”
He’s referring to the Macpherson report of 1999, which accused the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism and made 70 recommendations, including subjecting the police to greater public control, enshrining rights for victims of crime and applying freedom of information and race relation legislation to the police.
The report’s findings were not the only discoveries made in the fall-out from the collapsed trial.
In 2013 former undercover officer Peter Francis revealed he had posed as an anti-racism campaigner to get closer to the family. He said the operation’s aim was to ensure that the public “did not have as much sympathy for the Stephen Lawrence campaign” and persuade “the media to start maybe tarring the campaign”.
Khan claims not to have been surprised by the revelation that the Met was spying on the Lawrences, but admits he was taken aback by the infiltration of the campaign.
“I’d always assumed that the state had its way of keeping an eye,” he says. “I had no idea of how that might be, but I never thought it would be the case that somebody would infiltrate family campaigns so closely. It went too far.”
He remains blasé about being monitored. “I think I was [spied on],” he explains. “I suspect there’s a file on me somewhere. In a sense I’m not really interested because I assume it to be true.”
The Lawrences’ long-sought justice was eventually served a gruelling 18 years after the collapse of the private prosecution.
Gary Dobson and David Norris were convicted of Stephen’s murder via new DNA evidence in January 2012. The convictions centred around a tiny spot of blood found in the weave of the collar of Dobson’s bomber jacket, hairs belonging to Lawrence found on Norris’ jeans and an unearthed video shot in 1994 which established in the mind of the jury that the pair were, without doubt, racist and violent.
“I’d go down Catford and places like that, I’m telling you now, with two sub-machine guns and I’m telling you I would take one of them, skin the black c*** alive, mate, torture him, set him alight,” says Norris in the video. “I would blow their two arms and legs off and say, ‘Go on, you can swim home now.’ They would be bobbing around like that.”
Khan admits that the emotional impact of cases such as Lawrence’s mean that he couldn’t recommend his work as a job.
“It’s tough,” he acknowledges. “That’s trite, but it is emotionally draining. Most of the people you represent are in awful places. But I don’t see it as work. I don’t recommend it as a job, I recommend it as a vocation.”
Khan arrived in the UK at the age of four. His family, after journeying from Karachi, settled in east London’s Bethnal Green opposite the Charrington brewery and his father found work as a bus conductor.
His brother remembers the East End vividly, telling the BBC recently, “We were living in a basement, a one-bedroom flat where all of us were staying… They were tough times.”
He added that the racially motivated assaults Khan suffered growing up blended into a background of East End racial tension and violence, saying his parents believed it was the norm for Asians to be attacked by skinheads, and it didn’t occur to them to involve the police.
“Growing up in the East End opened a window onto what lots of people don’t see,” acknowledges Khan. “I could have been treated very differently when I came to this country – many people have been.”
This outsider status has been reflected in many of Khan’s most famous cases. Aside from Lawrence, Khan represented the parents of Victoria Climbié, entrusted to her aunt’s care by her parents, who sent her from Côte d’Ivoire to Europe so she could receive a better education.
A year after arriving in London she was dead. The Home Office pathologist who examined her body found 128 injuries and scars, and described her suffering as “the worst case of child abuse I have encountered”.
Her death prompted an investigation into how such abuse could continue, apparently unrecognised by health and social workers, for a year. Unusually, Climbié’s parents were at first uninvolved.
“I got a call out of the blue from a friend of the Climbiés, who asked if I knew that an inquiry was going on and told me that the family was not involved,” recalls Khan. “I was shocked. Without any funding I got the first flight out to Abobo [the capital of Côte d’Ivoire].”
Khan sat in his suit and tie on a dirt road outside the family’s house, taking instructions and planning to launch an application for judicial
review so the family could take part in the investigation.
“I made a call to the secretary to the inquiry and said I was in Abobo and about to issue proceedings,” he says. “I asked if they wanted to change their minds and got a call an hour later saying that they were involved. We then represented them through the course of the inquiry.”
Climbié’s abuse was found to have continued against a backdrop of state failure. Medical staff and social workers had missed multiple opportunities to intervene, and two social workers were sacked for gross misconduct.
The universal popularity of cases such as Climbié and Lawrence have seen Khan painted in heroic light.
“Even now, if I’m on the Tube or a train, someone will come up to me and shake my hand or say nice things,” he says.
He goes on to express his disbelief that anybody would remember him, terming himself “gobsmacked”.
Typically, he plays down what will surely form his legacy – holding the state to account.
“I’d love that to be my legacy – it sounds amazing,” he says. “Though that is a by-product of what you do. The underlying thing for me is a sense of injustice.”
But this role as champion of the vulnerable has come under fire from some quarters recently. Khan’s decision to represent those associated with or accused of terror offences does not play nearly so neatly into the role of hero, after all.
“I’ve had people come to me who know I’m close to Imran who have asked me to make representations to him not to represent people charged with terrorism offences because that will taint his reputation as a human rights lawyer,” campaigner Suresh Grover told the BBC recently.
Khan’s recent cases have ranged from representing the families of the 7/7 London bombers at inquest to defending one of the first two Britons to be jailed for terrorist offences upon returning from Syria, where they had attended a place used for terrorist training used by those fighting President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
But Khan does not seem to care about the criticism levelled at him, much less that some of his work might be considered controversial.
“I’m not interested in reputation,” he says simply. “It’s not that you want to be on the side of good – you want to deal with injustice, and that takes many forms.”