On the morning of 17 April 1984, 25-year-old Metropolitan Police officer Yvonne Fletcher (1958-1984) was fatally wounded by a shot fired from the Libyan embassy on St James’s Square, London. Shot while monitoring a demonstration against the then-leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, Fletcher’s death was in part the tragic result of a worsening diplomatic relationship between Britain and Libya.
The fallout was immense. After Fletcher’s murder, the embassy was besieged for eleven days, after which those inside were expelled from the country and the UK severed all diplomatic ties with Libya. However, in spite of a police investigation that lasted until 2017, nobody has ever been formally convicted of Fletcher’s murder, and to this day, questions surrounding Fletcher’s death remain unanswered.
So who was Yvonne Fletcher, and what were the circumstances that led to her death?
Fletcher had long wanted to be a police officer
Yvonne Fletcher was just 3 years old when she first told her parents that she wanted to become a police officer. Upon first applying to join the police force at 18 years old, she was rejected because she didn’t meet the minimum height restriction. However, in 1977 she was accepted onto the Metropolitan Police 20-week training course.
She qualified and, after a two-year probation period, became a Woman Police Constable. She was posted to Bow Street police station, and was reportedly highly regarded by her colleagues, who nicknamed her ‘Super Fletch’. She also became engaged to a fellow police officer.
Gaddafi targeted Libyan dissidents in Britain
Gaddafi took power in Libya in 1969, and began an increasingly radical campaign to target enemies abroad. Between 1980 and 1984, Gaddafi had ordered the deaths of several exiled opponents of his regime.
Bombings targeted at Libyan dissidents took place in Manchester and London on 10 and 11 March 1984. Though the Libyan government denied any involvement, ensuing investigations resulted in five Libyans, who were thought to be behind the attacks, being deported from the UK.
Fletcher was tasked with policing an anti-Gaddafi demonstration
On 17 April 1984, Fletcher and her policing partner PC John Murray had expected to undertake their normal duties as community police officers in the Covent Garden area. However, they were requested by the duty inspector to assist with the policing of a political demonstration expected to take place outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in St James’s Square.
The bureau, which was previously known as the Libyan embassy, had been taken over and was under the control of a revolutionary committee made up of 4 people, including a senior official known as Saleh Ibrahim Mabrouk. Just after 10am, around 75 anti-Gaddafi protesters congregated behind barriers on the pavement directly opposite the bureau: Fletcher and her colleague stood with their backs to the bureau, facing the demonstrators.
The police weren’t warned about the possibility of guns being used
On 16 April, the People’s Bureau in London asked authorities in Tripoli how to deal with the demonstration. They suggested that they do one of three things: do nothing; drag some dissidents into the Bureau to physically assault them; or shoot some of the demonstrators. Gaddafi instructed them to open fire on the protestors.
Though the message was intercepted and decrypted by the National Security Agency in the US, and then passed on to MI5, MI5 failed to inform the police or Home Office.
On the morning of 17 April, a police workman putting crowd control barriers in place was told by one of the Libyans from the Bureau that there were guns inside, and that there would be fighting. The workman passed the message to the police, who decided to take no alternative action.
Fletcher’s colleague promised to find out who had shot her
At around 10am, two windows on the first floor of the Bureau opened, and Sterling sub-machine-guns were pointed at and opened fire upon the crowd of demonstrators and police officers. Fletcher was struck in the back by a bullet and fell to the ground. Her colleague, PC Murray, came to her assistance and helped to move Fletcher to the safety of a nearby street. In addition, 10 people were injured, one seriously.
An ambulance arrived a short while later. While PC Murray accompanied Fletcher in the ambulance, it became clear that her injuries were severe and she would likely die. PC Murray promised Fletcher that he would find whoever was responsible. This promise became the basis of a campaign for justice that the Murray undertook for the best part of four decades.
Despite attempts to save her life, Fletcher died at around midday.
The Bureau was besieged
The following day, Gaddafi appeared on Libyan television and blamed the British police and security forces for the attack. Over the coming week, five bombs were planted in London. Four were identified and defused, and the fifth exploded in the baggage area of Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport.
Meanwhile, the Bureau was besieged by some 200 armed police, who isolated the square, erected a barrier to cover the Bureau, and demanded that the building be evacuated, all inside be questioned and that police search the building for weapons and explosives.
Negotiations between both sides worsened, and on 22 April, Britain informed the Libyan government that diplomatic ties were broken. The diplomats were given until midnight on 29 April to leave the country, and Britain instructed the embassy staff to leave Tripoli by the same deadline.
More than 600 police officers attended Fletcher’s funeral
During the ensuing siege, Fletcher’s hat and four other officers’ helmets were left lying in the square. On the early morning of 27 April, a policeman acted against orders and retrieved Fletcher’s hat.
The hat was placed on Fletcher’s coffin for her funeral, which took place at Salisbury Cathedral and was attended by 600 police officers as well as Lawrence Byford, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Kenneth Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
The Libyan government eventually admitted culpability
Two years after the demonstration, Fletcher’s murder became a factor by the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to allow the US bombing of Libya from UK bases. In 1999, British and Libyan diplomatic relations had improved to the extent that the Libyan government admitted culpability in the shooting, and paid compensation.
In 2007, British detectives were able to interview their main suspect, and detectives spent weeks in Libya interviewing both witnesses and suspects. It was suggested that Abdulmagid Salah Ameri, a junior diplomat in the Bureau at the time, had been identified by witnesses as shooting from the window. It was also suggested that two men, Matouk Mohammed Matouk and Abdulqadir al-Baghdadi, should face charges of conspiracy to murder, particularly as neither had diplomatic status, so could theoretically face prosecution.
Nobody has been officially convicted for the murder
In 2009, Gaddafi was interviewed by Sky News, where he apologised for Fletcher’s murder. The same year, it also came to light that in 2006, an agreement was reached between the two nations that Fletcher’s killer would not be extradited for trial in the UK. In a letter to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Police Federation stated that they were ‘appalled and disgusted’ by the decision.
British police continued their investigation until 2017. Though sufficient evidence existed to prosecute one of the co-conspirators, no charges were brought, with the government citing national security concerns as the reason. As of 2023, nobody has been convicted of Fletcher’s murder, though in 2021, the High Court of Justice determined that Gaddafi’s ally Saleh Ibrahim Mabrouk was jointly liable for Fletcher’s murder.
Fletcher became the first police officer to be honoured by the Police Memorial Trust, and on 1 February 1985, her memorial was unveiled in St James’s Square by Margaret Thatcher.