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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Steven Morris

Woman who helped organise Colston statue protest jailed for fraud

A large crowd of people use ropes to lower the bronze statue of Edward Colston over the edge of Bristol's harbour
Protesters drop the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour in June 2020. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

A key organiser of the protest in Bristol during which a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped in the city’s harbour has been jailed for two and a half years for fraud.

Xahra Saleem, 23, admitted using more than £30,000 that was supposed to go to a charity for disadvantaged youngsters in the city to fund her lifestyle, including spending almost £6,000 on Uber rides.

During her sentencing hearing at Bristol crown court, fellow directors of the charity Changing Your Mindset said Saleem’s crime had led to the organisation shutting down.

They said they had been suspected of wrongdoing by the community and told the court a young person who had lost their life might have been saved if the charity had still been going.

Alistair Haggerty, prosecuting, said Saleem, previously known as Yvonne Maina, was a “prominent figure” in Bristol and was involved in organising the Black Lives Matter march that led to the toppling of the statue on 7 June 2020.

Just before the march, Saleem and a group of people who worked with youngsters in the St Pauls area of the city set up Changing Your Mindset with money to be raised through a GoFundMe page. The idea was to fund weekly support sessions, plus an educational visit to Africa.

After the toppling of the statue made headlines around the world, more than 500 donations flooded in.

Haggerty said Saleem had “succumbed to temptation” and began using the money for herself. Over a 15-month period, she spent the funds on rent, an iPhone, iMac, purchases on Amazon, hair and beauty appointments, takeaways and Uber rides.

She made a string of false excuses about why she was not handing the money over to the charity – including that Black Lives Matters had advised her not to – but in the summer of 2021 admitted the money had gone.

In a victim impact statement, Rebecca Scott, who received an MBE for her services to the community in 2021, said she had helped Saleem organise the BLM protest in Bristol and was pleased with what it achieved.

She was also delighted when so much money was raised in the aftermath for Changing Your Mindset.

“This felt like our chance to really have an impact,” she said. They were “blown away” by how much money was raised. After it became clear that the money had gone, she and other directors were made to feel “complicit” in what had happened. She said young people had lost trust in them and they made the decision to close.

Scott said a young person they had been supporting had died. “What if we could have intervened?” she asked.

Another director, Jade Royal, said the last two years had been a “nightmare”. She said one young person had “needlessly” died. “We could have been the people who saved that young person’s life.”

Tom Edwards, defending, said Saleem was “extremely sorry” and felt great remorse. He accepted what she did was an abuse of her position but said she was only 20 when she was entrusted with a very large amount of money.

Edwards said it took place soon after she had moved to Bristol and was living away from her family for the first time. At the time she had been taking drugs and drinking to excess. She also had mental health issues. He said there was little or no planning in what she did and she spent the money foolishly.

He said the young man who died was the victim of a stabbing and was Saleem’s cousin. “It is not something which can be attributed to the actions of Miss Saleem,” he added.

Judge Michael Longman said Saleem had abused her position of trust and responsibility by raising money for an “immensely worthwhile cause” and using it to fund her own lifestyle.

The judge said her victims included the young people who would have benefited, the other workers in the charity and the donors. Longman told her: “Your dishonest behaviour continued for a substantial amount of time. There were a large number of victims. You must have realised how much your behaviour would affect so many people.”

Saleem initially entered not guilty pleas to two charges of fraud. The second charge related to another online fundraising page, called “Bristol protesters legal fees”, that was set up after the toppling of the statue. This charge has been allowed to lie on file.

Workers from Changing Your Mindset, which was based in the St Pauls area, were at Bristol crown court to see Saleem sentenced.

Outside court, two of the young people who would have benefited from the charity’s work expressed their anger.

Jay Daley, 23, said: “Considering the impact on us I don’t feel the sentence is enough. We’re not going to get back what she has taken from us.”

Deneisha Royal, 22, said: “It saddens me that a member of our community could do this to us. For me the group was a safe place. A refuge that I could relax without concern for my safety.

“For some members it was an opportunity to cook a meal, collect donations and receive support for mental health as well as learn about new things such as employment opportunities.”

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