Celebrity Photographer Kicked by Muslim Woman She Tried to Help Tells of Pain at Being Charged as a Racist
Polly Dunbar, Daily Mail (London), July 7, 2012
She has heard them many times over the past few days, but speaking the words ‘racially aggravated assault’ still causes Cinnamon Heathcote-Drury’s entire body to shake and tears to stream down her face.
Her name may have been cleared, but it is obvious the scars of being accused of a vicious hate crime will be more difficult to erase.
Last Thursday, a jury at Isleworth Crown Court in West London took just 15 minutes to acquit her of shoving a pregnant Muslim woman to the floor and calling her husband a terrorist during a row in Tesco. Despite Miss Heathcote-Drury’s relief at the verdict, her sense of bewilderment at what has happened remains her overwhelming emotion.
The investigation that led to the celebrated photographer – whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery – being tried was described in court as ‘a shambles’.
To her, it often felt like being trapped in a dystopian world in which she could not make her version of events heard, no matter how hard she tried.
Although, in fact, she says she was the victim of assault, her own accusations were dismissed while her accusers’ claims were pursued by police.
Today the elegant 41-year-old is exhausted, but grateful finally to have her chance to explain the truth about this strange and disturbing case.
‘I’ve been going out of my mind since this all happened,’ she says. ‘I’ve been on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills because of the stress.
‘I didn’t even tell any of my friends about the charges until April, because I couldn’t bear to say them; they were too hideous. I have a lot of friends of different ethnic backgrounds and I didn’t want to plant even the smallest doubt in their minds about me.
‘Before this, I believed that if you were innocent and told the truth, you would be protected by the system, but I’ve learned some very hard lessons.
‘I kept waiting for my story to be investigated, and it never was. Of course it was an enormous relief to be acquitted so quickly, but I find it absolutely terrifying that the case against me could have gone as far as it did.
‘The sense of powerlessness at what was happening was overwhelming.’
Even a relatively short time in her company reveals that if Miss Heathcote-Drury had committed the crimes it would have been remarkably out of character. Articulate and bohemian but resolutely middle-class, she grew up in Devon, the daughter of Trevor Heathcote-Drury, a hotelier and pilot, and his wife Roxanne, an artist.
After a stint running The Amber Trust, a charity which helps blind and partially sighted children to become involved in music, she became a photographer, making her name with a portrait of Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman.
A diverse career followed, including other celebrity portraits, charity projects, such as one with Cancer Research, and teaching photography to disadvantaged students at City and Westminster College.
It was on November 30 last year that she unwittingly became embroiled in the extraordinary fracas at a Tesco superstore in West London.
She had been to see a friend and was on her way home to Kensington when she decided to pop into the store for some groceries at about 2pm.
She was waiting to pay at the checkout when she noticed a man with two small children also queuing. They were joined by a woman wearing a hijab and a long black tunic who began unloading an overflowing trolley, one item at a time.
She says: ‘I glanced over and thought, “This poor woman’s going to be there for hours.” Her husband was standing closest to me, so I said to him, “Will you help her?”
‘He said, “I’ve got the children.” I said, “Well, I can help her” and he replied, “What’s it to you?” I said, “This is what feminism’s about – women helping women.”
He said, “Oh, get lost.” I looked at the woman and said, “We live in a society in Britain where rights are equal – if you need help you can ask for it.” ’
Very little was revealed in court about the couple, Abdelkrim Danyaoui and Mounia Hamoumi, aside from his stated occupation of ‘teacher’ and the fact that Mrs Hamoumi had been pregnant at the time of the incident.
Miss Heathcote-Drury says her initial impression was that the woman was elegantly dressed and appeared to have a French accent, while she assumed the man was of Mediterranean origin. She accepts that her offer of help caused offence, but denies her comments about British society were intended as a slight against the couple’s Islamic culture.
‘I wasn’t trying to be inflammatory, or condescending, or implying anything about their race or religion,’ she says. ‘I was trying to make sure the woman was OK because I don’t think women generally do enough in small ways to help one another.
‘I think he misconstrued my offer of help. I made him uncomfortable because he wasn’t helping her.’
The couple became infuriated. ‘The husband came up behind me and said in my ear, “You f*** off,” which I found very intimidating,’ Miss Heathcote-Drury says. ‘I wanted to get out of the shop as quickly as possible, but he approached me again.’
She called for a security guard and when one arrived, he began speaking to the man. Meanwhile, Miss Heathcote-Drury, who had paid for her shopping, was making her escape down the aisle when she claims she felt a sharp pain in her left shin and stumbled.
‘The woman was standing with her hand on her hip and smirking. She wanted to humiliate me. Then she hit me on the left cheek.’
According to Miss Heathcote-Drury, a struggle ensued in which she was kicked in the right shin and her hat was wrenched from her head before the woman lost her balance and fell.
The security guard called the police while the couple continued to put their shopping through the till.
‘I didn’t want the police to be called, but because I’d told the guard I’d been hit and kicked, I was informed Tesco were obliged to call them,’ she says. ‘I asked the guard to let me speak to the police to say I didn’t want to press charges – I just wanted to forget it as I hadn’t been badly hurt.
‘At this point, the couple were talking to one another in a language I didn’t understand. I think they had realised what was happening and were concocting their story. They kept shouting at me. I couldn’t believe it.
In shock and trembling, Miss Heathcote-Drury was led to a back room to wait until two police officers arrived. They took her name, date of birth and address, and then left. When they returned after speaking to the couple, she was told she was being arrested for racially aggravated assault.
‘I was absolutely astounded,’ she says. ‘It was just total disbelief. I had no idea what was going on, but I kept thinking, “When they watch the CCTV they’ll see what happened.”
‘I now know they had spoken to the couple before me and believed their story without even hearing mine. They marched me through the store and took me to Chelsea police station. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. They spent hours fingerprinting me, taking my details and my DNA, in a stark room. I kept asking if I could see a nurse, because my cheek was very sore, but I was told the nurse was busy.
‘I asked again and again when I could make my statement, but the officer kept saying, “You can’t make a statement, you’re under arrest.”
‘They asked me if I wanted to call anyone and I thought, “Who can I call?” I’m single and couldn’t afford a lawyer because a lot of my work is voluntary and unpaid. My liberty had been removed and I had no voice. No one was listening.’
A duty solicitor arrived and explained that the couple had claimed Miss Heathcote-Drury had used the words ‘suicide bomber’ and ‘terrorist’, called the man a ‘bad feminist’ and said they were probably on jobseekers’ allowance. She was then interviewed.
‘I said that I hadn’t used the words “suicide bomber”, but the officer asked me how I would feel, as a Muslim, being called that,’ she says. ‘I felt they didn’t want to listen.’
Finally, at 11.35pm, when she was informed the CPS had decided to release her pending further investigation, she was allowed to see a nurse. She then gave her statement before arriving home at 5.30am.
On December 17, three days before she was due to return to the police station, she says she received a call from one of the investigating officers asking her to make a statement about her assault claims. ‘I told him I’d made one already and he said he hadn’t seen it,’ she says.
She had also discovered, on returning to Tesco, that police had not yet spoken to the security guard, despite him offering to give a statement.
Three days later, her worst fears were realised when she was charged. ‘I was in shock,’ she says. ‘I was told the CPS had made the decision to charge me on December 16, without even knowing about my counter-allegation. I felt the police had no interest in my side at all.
‘They hadn’t talked to any witnesses apart from the couple and a cashier who hadn’t seen crucial parts of the incident.
‘I felt like they just wanted me as a convenient statistic to help them meet a target.’
Through a contact, she was able to enlist the services of a solicitor from Tuckers, England’s leading criminal defence practice.
They advised her to ask for her case to be heard at a crown court rather than a magistrates’ court, where she would have more opportunities to give her side of events.
Her trial took place over four days last week. Being questioned was an ordeal, but Miss Heathcote-Drury says she was glad the trial had arrived after months of waiting.
On the first day, her accusers gave their evidence against her. The security guard also told the court that he had heard Miss Heathcote-Drury say she did not want to press charges. However, he admitted he had not seen the tussle or how Mrs Hamoumi came to fall.
Another witness, the cashier, also gave evidence saying that he had not seen the crucial incident but had heard the man telling Miss Heathcote-Drury to ‘f*** off’.
She says: ‘I felt no animosity towards the couple.
‘They probably couldn’t believe their luck when the police believed them. I’m sure they had no idea how the situation would escalate. I understand that I could pursue my case against them, but I never wanted that in the first place.
‘I just want to put the entire episode behind me.’
Had she been convicted, the photographer was warned to expect community service – ‘an irony, given it would have put an end to the voluntary work I do normally’.
In the end, CCTV did not show the incident, but the fact the acquittal was delivered so quickly was testament to the strength of her defence.
Her lawyer Miss Sarnjit Lal says: ‘We were astonished with the way the case was handled, the fact Miss Heathcote-Drury was charged and that it went to crown court. It has been a terrible ordeal for her and a total waste of public resources.’
Miss Heathcote-Drury says: ‘I find it very sad we live in a culture which seems to believe if we try to help someone, we’re asking for trouble.’
A spokesman for Tesco said: ‘We do not comment on police matters.’