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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 18:21 GMT
Turbulent day at Climbié inquiry
Kouao (left) denied harming Victoria
By BBC News Online's community affairs reporter Cindi John

If it had not been for the prison officer at her shoulder, there would have been nothing extraordinary about the woman at the door.

In a neat white blouse and red shawl with her hair pulled back off her face, she probably looked like hundreds of other women you would pass in the street every day.

But this was no ordinary face on the street - last year Marie-Therese Kouao and her lover Carl Manning were jailed for life for killing Kouao's eight-year old great niece, Victoria Climbie.

After months of refusal Kouao had been brought under duress to Hannibal House in south east London where the public inquiry into Victoria's death is being held.
Victoria and her great-aunt Kouao
Kouao systematically abused Victoria

Along with everyone else in the unusually crowded inquiry room the parents of the dead girl, Francis and Berthe Climbié stared fixedly at the door as Kouao entered.

But if she was nervous, Kouao gave no outward sign of it.

Flanked by the prison officer and her lawyer she confidently approached the witness chair.

But she avoided looking at Victoria's parents seated just yards away with their lawyer.

Proceedings started encouragingly as Kouao - speaking in French in a strong, clear voice - swore an oath that she would tell the truth about the circumstances surrounding Victoria's death.

It seemed worries that she might refuse to speak at all had been unfounded.

Tension

But as inquiry counsel Neil Garnham began to question her about Victoria's life with her, it became apparent that Kouao had come only to give an unchallenged version of events.

Speaking at first through her interpreter Kouao refused to answer questions which she said were of a "personal" nature and accused the inquiry of not being interested in the truth.

Tension in the room rose as Mr Garnham persisted with his questioning.

Carl Manning
Carl Manning's videotaped evidence will be presented later this month

It was a shock nevertheless when suddenly it all came to a head.

Overcome with anger Kouao suddenly dispensed with the services of her interpreter and burst into broken English.

Shouting that she had been unfairly imprisoned for a crime she said she had not committed, Kouao said that she had loved "Anna", as she called her throughout her evidence, like a daughter.

She blamed everyone but herself for Victoria's death proclaiming she was not "a monster"

She also lashed out at Victoria's parents who allowed her to take their daughter from Ivory Coast to Europe for what they believed would be a better life.

Throughout Kouao's outburst the Climbiés maintained a dignified silence keeping their eyes fixed on their daughter's killer.

But Kouao did not return the gaze of the couple whose daughter she had promised to care for.

Eventually after a break Kouao was persuaded to give fuller answers to the difficult questions surrounding events leading to the death of the eight-year old.

But to those who had followed Victoria's tragic story the rambling and incoherent tale which emerged from Kouao over the next four hours did not ring true.

When Marie-Therese Kouao was returned to Durham prison as the afternoon drew to a close many, including no doubt Victoria's parents, would have felt that her testimony had shed little light on Victoria's short and unhappy life in England.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Robert Parsons
"Victoria's parents sat just feet away from their daughter's convicted killer"
The BBC's Sue Littlemore
"There is a question mark over how useful this has been"
Climbie family solicitor Imran Khan
"It has been a distressing day for the family"

Key stories

Background

THE TRIAL

TALKING POINT
See also:

08 Jan 02 | England
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