How did Chaplas Menka's arrest lead to serious injury? And why?
Standing by the door of a two-storey building in the Höfði industrial district and not finding a doorbell, I call Chaplas Menka, who says he’ll come down to let me in. My interview subject made local headlines this September, after being reportedly brutalised by the police. Since then, the story has gone quiet.
A short while later, he invites me to his abode. He is of average height, dark-skinned, with sunken eyes and a svelte frame. He has a thick accent and speaks hesitatingly, picking his words carefully.
I ask him how he’s doing, and he modestly says okay as we make our way up the stairs and to his room. He hobbles slowly along on a crutch through the unlit hall of the eleven-bedroom complex. It’s dingy and a full seven kilometres from downtown Reykjavík.
Chaplas’s room is an eclectic mess, with a large unmade bed in one corner next to an old faux-leather sofa, and a pile of old TVs. Chaplas says he doesn’t have a lot of belongings, and that he lets his friends use the unused space to store their things. He offers me a seat on the sofa. On the table next to us are four different kinds of prescription painkillers, as well as packs of instant ramen. The air is stuffy, and I get the impression he doesn’t leave his room often.
The 35-year-old Chaplas is a refugee from Liberia, a country that has for long been plagued by civil war. Unlike so many asylum seekers in Iceland, Chaplas has already been granted refugee status—in Italy. He tells me he originally visited Iceland as a tourist in 2009 to visit friends, and was surprised how well he fit in, as well as how friendly the locals were. “Every time I’m in Iceland, I’m very happy,” he says. “There are very few black people in Iceland, so no matter where I go, everyone is friendly.”
Unfortunately, his Italian refugee status doesn’t afford him the same travelling rights as European citizens, as he’s only allowed to stay in Iceland for three months at a time. Without a working permit, Chaplas resorted to collecting cans and bottles downtown. He’d earn 15 ISK per item recycled, making around 5,000 ISK (£25 / 40 USD) on a good night out. It’s not much, but he says he got by.
On one such venture in early September, he was stopped by two police officers. After asking his name, the pair called headquarters, and then told him they had to deliver him a letter from the Directorate of Immigration. Chaplas says he asked if he could come collect it in the morning, as it was already close to midnight. However, the officers assured him the errand would only take fifteen minutes.
He agreed to go to the station, where he was given a letter stating that said he had overstayed his visit by several months. Another policeman asked him a few questions, before telling him he was under arrest.
Chaplas insists that the policeman didn’t explain to him what crime he was charged with, and that he was then refused his legal right to an attorney. He says he panicked and started resisting as the police attempted to transfer him to another room. The police say he was subsequently restrained with handcuffs and a zip-tie plastic strap around his feet, although Chaplas oddly disputes being restrained in that manner when we speak, one of several inconsistencies in his story. According to police, once they decided to remove the alleged zip-tie, however, they did so with a knife, in the process accidentally cutting Chaplas’s right leg four times. He shows me the scars, and two months after the fact, they still look gruesome.
Chaplas tells me he started bleeding heavily, and was ambulanced to the emergency room. He says the doctors gave him thirteen stitches, and told him his calf muscle was torn, which could take up to twelve months to heal. After being treated for his immediate wounds, Chaplas says he was made to wait in a holding cell until morning, before being released without charge.
Getting a helping hand
His long-term friend, Lillý Mikaela Hreinsdóttir Miðfjörð, came over to pick him up and describes over the phone how she had never seen Chaplas in such a broken-down state. “He was just sitting there, wearing nothing but his boxers and a t-shirt, covered in his own blood,” she says.
Lillý says she noted a radical change in Chaplas’s behaviour over the following weeks—an easy-going person by nature, he was noticeably afraid of being around strangers according to her. Indeed, he initially refused to meet me for the interview without having Lillý present.
The physical injuries have made it difficult for Chaplas to go anywhere by himself. “I drive him to the doctors, his lawyer, and anywhere else he has to go,” she says. “He’s now completely dependent on the goodwill of others.”
Rendered unable to earn a living through collecting recyclables, Chaplas now gets his food from the Fjölskylduhjálp (“Family Aid”) food bank. Lillý says she tries to help him with other financial needs, but admits that as a mother of four, there’s not much she can do.
Two weeks after my meeting with Chaplas, Hörður Jóhannesson from the office of the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police agrees to answer my questions over email. He says that an internal investigation determined that Chaplas’s injuries were the result of a communication failure; that the police assume full responsibility for Chaplas’s injuries and are currently working on an out-of-court settlement with his lawyer.
Hörður says that the accidental stabbing was a result of two officers not conveying their intentions clearly enough, as one went to fetch prongs to cut the plastic straps, while another proceeded to use a knife, to the aforementioned effect. Following this, an internal memo has been passed to every officer, asserting that correct protocol for removing plastic straps bars the use of a knife.
Hörður tells me that the investigation revealed that Chaplas had indeed asked to speak with a lawyer when he was detained. The officers’ failure to abide his wishes was the result of misunderstanding or mistake, says Hörður, further hypothesising that after the injury occurred, normal procedure went out the window.
Hörður asserts that Chaplas was informed that he was being arrested for staying illegally in the country, and that police had been searching for him since July. Chaplas’s heated reactions then set in motion the chain of events that followed.
However, the officers involved have not been punished for the incident. “We’ve gone over the matter with the staff in question,” he says, “and as far as I know they won’t face any further consequences.” He added that the police will answer for what happened, but not through the media, as the case is still on-going.
Over email, lawyer Þórsteinn Gunnarsson, a division manager at the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration, said he couldn’t comment on individual cases, but noted that the directorate only asked police to deliver a notice to individuals that have overstayed their stay, not to arrest them. Those notified generally have 5-30 days to leave the country before being deported, although extenuating circumstances may warrant an extension.
Currently, Chaplas and his lawyer, Hreiðar Eiríksson, are in the process of negotiating with the police. “If a settlement can’t be reached, we’ll have to take the matter to the courts,” Hreiðar tells me over the phone.
Hreiðar adds that the police has yet to provide him with a reason for Chaplas’s arrest, and brings into question whether restraining him was necessary to hand him a simple letter. He was unwilling to comment on whether he thinks Chaplas may have been treated differently because of his skin colour and nationality. However, his friend Lillý was not so modest, claiming that many foreigners are systematically discriminated against in Iceland.
“Chaplas has been met with a lot of hostility, and I know of many other cases where the police have arrested black people without any justification,” she says. “Even though many people would like to believe otherwise, we live in an incredibly racist society.”