Woman who helped organise Colston statue protest in Bristol jailed for charity fraud

  • Video report by ITV West Country's Richard Payne

A woman who helped to organise the Black Lives Matter protest that toppled the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston has been jailed for two-and-a-half years for fraud.

Xahra Saleem, 23, pleaded guilty to using more than £30,000 that was supposed to go to a charity for disadvantaged youngsters in the city to buy a new phone, computer, hair and make-up, taxis and takeaways. 

Bristol Crown Court heard she transferred the money, which came from around the world, into her own bank account before using the money for herself. 

Saleem, who was previously known as Yvonne Maina, was a director of the now-defunct charity, Changing Your Mindset.

She was one of five young people who got together to organise a protest on 7 June 2020, in Bristol city centre, in response to the murder of George Floyd by police officers in the US. 

A statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into the harbour during the protest. Credit: PA Media

In the days before the march, attended by thousands of people despite lockdown restrictions, Saleem started an online fundraiser in the group's name, All Black Lives Bristol.

The aim was to raise a few hundred pounds to cover the costs of the demonstration and pay for PPE to be handed out to protesters.

Organisers agreed before the event to give any money left over from this to Changing Your Mindset, a Bristol youth group.

It planned to use the surplus cash to fund a life-changing trip to Africa for young people in the St Paul's area of the city.

Avon and Somerset police investigated the GoFundMe page called BristBLM after the donation money disappeared.

During the summer and autumn of 2020, the youth group attempted to get the money transferred from the fundraiser but eventually called the police.

Xahra Saleem was charged with two counts of fraud by abuse of position after a police investigation into two fundraising pages.

Saleem, of Romford, Essex, was arrested and initially entered not guilty pleas to two charges of fraud.

A trial was listed for December but Saleem appeared at Bristol Crown Court on 19 September to change her plea to guilty for the first charge.

The second charge was discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service.

In court on Tuesday, the case was outlined by prosecutor Alistair Haggerty KC and watched by a large number of people in the public gallery, some of whom had been victims of Saleem's fraud and who sat with their heads in their hands.

Mr Haggerty said 588 individual donations were made totalling £32,344. 

The court heard over 15 months, £44,815 was spent in 2,512 separate payments on living costs as well as a new phone, computer, clothes, hair, make-up and takeaways. Between July 2020 and July 2021, she spent £5,800 on Uber rides.

In June 2021, he said, Saleem admitted the money had gone from her account claiming she had suffered psychosis and had been in hospital. 

In WhatsApp messages to a friend, Saleem admitted: "I've done something horrendous. I get really bad psychosis (during which) I get some horrendous ideas. 

"Let's just say my brain spends it. I don't know what or why. I don't remember a single thing."

In a victim impact statement, Jade Royal, a former director at Changing Your Mindset, said people in her community wrongly mistrusted her because of the fraud.

She said she's suffered a two-year backlash and has lost trust in people as a result. 

In her defence, the court heard Saleem regretted her actions and had "bitten off far more than she could chew".

Judge Michael Longman told Saleem: "I don't find that your behaviour was fraudulent from the outset but your dishonest behaviour continued for a substantial period of time. There was abuse by you of the trust and responsibility you held. 

"There were a large number of victims. You must have realised just how much your behaviour would affect so many other people."