IT was a fight for justice which spanned nearly two decades and exposed institutional racism at the heart of Scotland's legal system.

The battle to jail the killer of Surjit Singh Chhokar finally came to an end last week when Ronnie Coulter was convicted of stabbing the 32-year-old to death in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, on November 4 1998.

The conviction brought the final milestone on his family's long search for justice, which saw two trials come and go without a guilty verdict and official inquiries into both the treatment they received and the law's decision-making processes.

But Coulter was jailed only after a complete change in the mindset of the judiciary, and the ending of the 'gentlemen's colonial club' mentality which had disregarded the case for so long, according to the campaigning lawyer who took up the case, who spoke exclusively to the Sunday Herald in the wake of Coulter's conviction.

Aamer Anwar, picked up the gauntlet on behalf of Surjit's father and mother Darshan and Gurdev, and sister Manjit, when he was still a student studying law at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.


Speaking in his office on Friday, he reflected on the 18 years he had spent on the path to justice, as well as the family's resolve even as their hopes were repeatedly dashed.

"Someone asked me 'where I came up with the phrase 'gentlemen's colonial club?", he said "which I used to describe the legal system. The phrase didn't come out of nowhere.

"Mr Chhokar was a sergeant major in the Indian Army who had worked for the United Nations and his family members had been in the army. After his first dealings with the Crown Office, he said to me 'do these guys still think that this is the British Raj and that the are my masters?'.

"There was sheer arrogance. They had this family who did not even speak English asking questions and this upstart lawyer asking and demanding answers. There was a sense of 'how dare he'?.

"It had never happened before. Black or white, no-one from the victim's family had demanded answers in the way the Chhokar family had done."

Surjit Singh, a waiter, was 32 when was murdered. He was set upon by three men as he headed to his girlfriend’s home with a takeaway meal.

Three men - Coulter, his nephew Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery - were arrested and their cases were heard in two separate trials, in 1999 and 2000. All were acquitted of murder after blaming each other for the killing.

The three were actually given bail and while free Andrew Coulter stabbed 26-year-old Pat Kelly to death in a close in Wishaw in 1999. He has recently been pictured on far-right demonstrations against refugees organised by the Scottish Defence League.

The collapse of the first trial sent shockwaves through the legal establishment and led the trial Judge, Lord McCluskey, to question why all three had not been tried together, only to be rebuked by the then Lord Advocate Lord Hardie.

But the family vowed to fight on, and the campaign continued in earnest. Anwar said: "They mistook their dignity for weakness. Mr Chhokar was full of rage, and a real force of nature. He was determined no matter what not to lie down.

"People used to say 'oh, it's Aamer Anwar pulling the strings', but there was no way on the planet I could have pulled his strings. He would not be dictated to by anyone.

"There were arguments behind closed doors, but each time one of them would say 'let's end it', someone else would say 'if we end it, they'll think we have just given up. Did they think that our son's life is so cheap that we would just walk away?'."

The campaign went on to mobilise thousands of supporters and secure the backing of every trade union in Scotland. Questions were asked in the Scottish Parliament and political parties got on board.

Anwar believes that the public pressure was crucial in beginning the process of change at the Crown Office. He said: "When we galvanised support, that's when we began to get in through the front door. And then the Crown began the process of changing. It felt like some individuals did care, and you could see the worry on their faces because we were not giving up and weren't walking away.

"Getting every political party's support for justice was a major step forward because we then got into Parliament. We started then getting dialogue. We knew at the start that we would not focus on the police. It was the powerful legal establishment and Crown Office which was to blame.

"There was a continual attempt to blame the police, because they were an easy scapegoat. I became quite conscious of that because up until that point I had been the biggest critic of the police."

The campaign also made unlikely allies among the police, who had at first been a target of their ire and meetings with Graeme Pearson, who was the Assistant Chief Constable in charge of CID at the time, helped build bridges.

Anwar continued: "We came to an unwitting truce, when we realised what was happening behind the scenes would be a deliberate attempt to scapegoat the police for the failings of the Crown Office.

"We could put that to one side. Yes, there were insensitivities, and yes there was institutional racism in the treatment of the family but at the end of the day those police officers did their job and arrested three men.

"The people who let them go were the Crown Office."

But it was only with reform of the 800-year-old double jeopardy law in 2011 that the prospect of a further trial and a conviction became a possibility.

Police were instructed by the Crown Office at the start of 2012 to carry out a new investigation. Two years later the Crown applied to set aside the acquittals of the three original accused.

Appeal judges ultimately granted them permission to retry Ronnie Coulter but ruled that Andrew Coulter and Montgomery should not stand trial again.

At first the family were reluctant to believe in this ray of hope. "I was concious that it would take a great deal of courage on the part of the Crown Office to reopen the case because they had lost so badly and been hammered at the inquiries.

"I went and saw the family because without them giving the go ahead I can't give the green light. I saw Mr Chhokar and he started shouting, saying 'I'm not going back there again, they gave us nothing, they gave us no justice and now you want to drag this out again.'

"They said 'we don't have the strength again, son'. I remember begging him - and I was in tears at that meeting - saying he swore he would not give up until his dying breath to get justice. It was our only chance.

"I remember saying 'you've trusted me for nearly 14 years to speak on your behalf and to fight for you. Give me that one more chance.' And as soon as the words came out my mouth I thought 'I hope I'm not going to regret this'."

A behind the scenes meeting was held with Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, Solicitor General Lesley Thomson, and Lindsey Miller, Head of the Serious and Organised Crime Division, who all sought to reassure the family that their son would finally have justice.

The Lord Advocate would later travel to the Chhokar family home to visit Darshan, as he lay dying of cancer. Tragically, he died last October before knowing the verdict he had fought for.

Anwar said: "To imagine the Lord Advocate and his team, in the past, to have come to a family's house because the victim's father is ill would have been unthinkable. They would not have stepped out their office in the old days.

"He had to come and see them. Frank Mulholland respected the man. We kept that quiet. There was no press, there was nothing.

"He said that he wanted to come and tell them face to face, because Mr Chokhhar was too ill to come to Edinburgh to the Crown Office, and say they were going to try everything possible to win and get justice.

"Frank Mulholland said 'while we can't guarantee it, we'll do our level best'. That for me, more than anything, showed that the Crown Office had changed forever, because they gave that man what he deserved, which was dignity and respect."

Aamer reflected this on the steps of the court on Wednesday when he paid tribute to Darshan. "There is real sorrow that Mr Chhokar is not here to see justice but I hope that both he and Surjit are now finally at peace."

The family will make their final farewells to Surjit at a memorial at Kelvingrove Museum, where a bust dedicated to Surjit by the sculptor Alexander Stoddart has been placed.

But while the verdict has brought their fight to an end, it has not taken away the family's pain. Anwar said that while nothing ever will, it has given them peace of mind.

He said: "Mrs Chhokar still wakes up in the morning and touches the photo of her son and before she goes to sleep at night she kisses it. She said that she still feels Sarjit's presence and said to him 'I hope that you can have peace.'

"It is heartbreaking watching a mother and a sister sitting there saying 'how can they feel any joy?' There is no joy, there is no celebration. Mrs Chhokar said to me 'nobody is going to bring my son back.' But there is closure, and there is relief."

There is regret, too, that the other two originally accused of the murder are still walking the streets.

Anwar still finds it difficult to accept that a guilty verdict has finally been achieved, after the long, long years of struggle against vested interests and those who said it could never be done.

He said:" I suppose the biggest feeling is vindication. It's a bizarre feeling because I have spent 17 years of my life fighting this. It's a huge change to be in an environment where nobody is arguing with me and nobody is arguing with the family."