Viraj Mendis had lived in Britain for 13 years. He had overstayed his legal entry qualification as a student, but there was a ruling in force at the time that anyone staying over ten years had the legal right to remain. The Tory government extended the qualification period to 14 years and Viraj was therefore deemed to be an illegal immigrant. He was fighting against being deported back to Sri Lanka because he faced certain persecution and death because of his support for the Tamils. But he also campaigned on behalf of other people who were threatened by the Tories’ racist immigration laws.
In 1985, the British government had imposed Visa controls on Sri Lankan citizens – the first time that Visas had been demanded of Commonwealth citizens. According to Steve Cohen from the Law Centre, this was followed by three years of mistreatment of Tamils by the UK government. Viraj was given sanctuary at the Hulme Church of the Ascension for nearly two years from March 1987.
A decision was taken by the Race sub-committee (including John Clegg, John Nicholson and Val Stevens) to appoint him to a job (£10,000 pa) as an Immigration and Nationality Officer in the Race Unit, but he was unable to take this up as he would be arrested as soon as he left the sanctuary of the Church. Because of this, he was never actually paid anything (despite Tory claims). However, there was a lot of resentment within the Labour Group about the decision. Some members of the Labour Group felt that it was a deliberately provocative decision and there should have been consultation with other councillors. But John Nicholson says that the interview procedure was scrupulously adhered to; that the decision involved community representatives from the Race sub-committee; and that they were committed to implementing decisions of the Race sub-committee. The press and the opposition parties had a field day with the issue and it was widely regarded as one of the contributing factors to the loss of Labour seats in the May 1987 Council elections. However, the 20% rate rise was more likely to be the main factor in the electoral defeats.
Viraj’s appeal to the Home Office in May 1988 was unsuccessful and the police were preparing to smash into the church. During Sep/Oct/Nov 1988 there were court cases of 20 members of the VM Defence Campaign who had been arrested at different demonstrations or picket lines (at South Africa Airways) (see long resolution from Stretford carried on 12/10/88).
Eddie Abrahams (VM campaign activist) wrote:
“At 7.30am, Wednesday 18th January 1989, 100 officers from the Greater Manchester Police force smashed into the Church of the Ascension in Hulme and kidnapped Viraj. He had been in sanctuary for 671 days. Within two and a half hours he was in Pentonville prison in London, having been driven (still in his pyjamas) down the hard shoulder of the M1 at 120mph. Less than 55 hours later, and shackled to two police officers, Viraj was on the 12 noon Air Lanka flight to Colombo.”
Manchester Evening News 2 Aug 2010: Viraj Mendis banned from funeral of priest who sheltered him
Guardian 22 Sept 2004: Mendis returns to Manchester
Revolutionary Communist Group video: Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign
Text unedited from Kath’s version. This Appendix relates to Chapter 2.