Police in Derry have apologised to a young Strabane couple after arresting them both moments before their wedding, on suspicion it was a so-called ‘sham marriage’.
Twenty-four-years-old Neil McElwee and his 19-years-old bride Yanan Sun, who is four months pregnant, had just arrived at the Guildhall on Tuesday when police flooded the ceremony room, arresting the couple and detaining their guests for questioning.
“Yanan had just arrived and we had filled out our final paperwork. The ceremony was just about to start when we were told there was ‘a bit of a problem’. Eight police officers then came in and we were arrested.
“In front of everyone, our family and our friends, they said the wedding was a sham. I couldn’t believe it. I started shouting at them to stop. I told them they would be sorry. We knew we were in the right.
“The only sham which took place on Tuesday was how the police acted.”
The couple were taken to Strand Road police station where they were seperated and questioned for five hours before being released unconditionally. Nineteen years old Yanan was so devastated by the ordeal that once she reached Strand Road she asked officers to be allowed to change out of her wedding dress.
“It is not what I dreamed of for my wedding day,” she said. “I am left absolutely devastated.”
“Yanan did not even have her wedding dress on for ten minutes. ” Neil said.
All 40 guests at the wedding were detained at the Guildhall on Tuesday while police questioned the, Neil’s aunt, Leonie McElwee, was one of the last to leave.
Speaking as the drama unfolded on Wednesday, while clearly distressed, Ms McElwee said she had been “made to feel like a criminal”.
“None of us, whether westerners or Chinese, were allowed to leave until we had given police our names, addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth. They took others away too, saying they had overstayed their visas even though we were able to get people on the phone to verify that they were allowed to be here.
“It was awful. Just awful. It should have been such a happy occasion.”
Three of the couple’s guests were subsequently taken to Strand Road for questioning about their visas and Neil’s mother and bestman also found themselvesw subjected to lengthy questioning. One guest was found not to be in posession of the proper paperwork but all the others were released unconditionally.
Neil and Yanan have been together for just over a year. The couple say they planned to marry next year, however brought their plans forward when Yanan discovered she was pregnant.
Neil, who works as a chef at Ardgort House in Castlederg, said he had been working ‘exceptionally hard’ to make his wedding memorable.
“I saved whatever money I could to try and make the day as special as possible for my wee woman. I just wanted to give her her dream day and we put in so much effort to make it happen.
“I was up to 11 o’clock on Monday night making the food for the the reception in Ardgort, as I wanted it to be perfect, but that was just taken away from us.
“It hasn’t really sunk in. It just feels so surreal. Neither of us can really believe it happened.”
Neil and Yanan said when questioned about why their wedding was targetted, police told them they had received an anonymous tip off in the form of a letter the day before the wedding. The couple were later told police had received information from the Home Office the morning of the wedding which alleged that Yanan was in the country illegally.
“Yanan’s paperwork always has been 100%,” Neil said. “And we don’t know why police would act on an anonymous tip off without any concrete evidence. We also have to question why, if they received the information earlier, they waited until the moment the ceremony was due to start before they moved in.
“It was as if they were waiting to get as many people there as possible - to form a honey trap. It was despicable.”
While the couple were being detained at Strand Road, the rest of the guests were advised to go onto Argort for the reception. Although according to Neil: “No one felt like celebrating. What was to celebrate? Our guests stayed around to make sure we were okay, but that was that. One guest said it felt like wake. It was a nightmare.”
Following their release without charge, the couple heard from Guildhall staff on Wednesday who said as their paperwork continued to be in order they could still get married. The couple decided to marry at 3pm that day - without all the glitz and glamour of the previous day. Dressed in their every day clothes they exchanged vows in front of a handful of guests.
“We decided not to wait around,” Neil said. “Sure, we weren’t having the day we dreamed of but the core reason was still there. We still love each other and we still want to be together. That is the most important thing.”
However he said the memory of the day that never was will stay in his mind. “The police were full of apologies when they let us go, but apologies won’t bring our wedding day back. Apologies won’t fix things.”
The couple, through their solicitor Karina Breslin, intend to lodge complaints with the Police Ombudsman, the UK Border Agency and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Read more in today’s ‘Journal’