LONDON — Sabina Nessa, a popular and admired schoolteacher living in southeast London, was running late to meet a friend at a local pub when she left her home and cut through a park on an evening last September.
But on what should have been a 5-minute route, Nessa, 28, was ambushed from behind. Koci Selamaj, a garage worker in the park searching for a target, delivered dozens of blows to her head with a metal traffic sign until she was unconscious, before strangling Nessa in a premeditated attack of “truly evil violence,” prosecutors said.
A judge at the Central Criminal Court in London on Friday sentenced Selamaj, a 36-year-old Albanian, to life in prison with a minimum term of 36 years. He admitted in February that he was guilty of her death.
“Sabina was the wholly blameless victim of an absolutely appalling murder,” said Justice Nigel Sweeney, adding that her killing added to the insecurity of women walking at night.
“Words cannot describe how we are feeling even though he got” a life sentence, Nessa’s sister, Jebina Yasmin Islam, wrote on Twitter after the verdict was announced. “Forever in our hearts sis & will continue to say your name.”
Selamaj refused to attend the sentencing in person or by video link, his lawyer said, and had not expressed remorse. Asked why Selamaj had killed Nessa, Selamaj’s lawyer said: “There is simply no answer.”
The attack and killing of Nessa in a public park, part of which was captured on surveillance footage, intensified outrage over what women in particular have viewed as a failure of the authorities to combat gender-based violence in Britain.
The anger over the killing of Nessa built on outrage that emerged after Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive in London, was kidnapped and murdered by a London police officer, Wayne Couzens, while walking in a public area.
But coverage of the two cases also opened a broader conversation about whether crimes against women of color drew the same attention as those against white women.
Her family and other women’s rights advocates have criticized the media for not giving Nessa, who is British Bangladeshi, the same level of coverage as Everard.
Nessa’s family has called Selamaj’s admission of guilt a step toward gaining justice for her killing but said it would not ultimately end their suffering.
“Our beautiful, loving, caring and funny daughter is no more,” her parents said in a statement directed at Selamaj that was read to the court. “You are not a human, you are an animal. Sabina died in a way that no one should die, and this will torment us for the rest of our lives.”
Facing their first Ramadan without their daughter, a nature and animal lover, was heartbreaking, they said.
“Our family will never forget what you did,” said Islam. “But we will not let you take anything more from us.”
Nessa’s death rattled the southeast London community, where she was a beloved figure who was passionate about growing produce and cooking food. Staff at Rushey Green Primary School in Catford, Southeast London, are raising money to build a garden for Nessa. They described her as talented, dedicated and kind.
“She had a lifelong career ahead of her and this was taken away through this senseless murder,” said Lisa Williams, the school’s head, in a statement to the court, describing the emotional toll on the school community. “Our school has lost an incredibly talented teacher, and the teaching community has lost an inspiring individual destined to have lasting impact on so many young lives.”
Selamaj did not have any prior convictions, prosecutors said, but his ex-wife had told authorities that he had a history of violence, including strangling her on two occasions, and that she feared for her life.
He drove from the town of Eastbourne in Sussex, about 50 miles south of London, that night with the intention of carrying out an attack, the prosecution said, and waited in the Cator Park area around 8 p.m.
According to surveillance footage, he walked past Nessa at about 8:30 p.m. and came up behind her, striking her with the traffic sign until she was unconscious, before carrying her to an area of the park that was shrouded in darkness.
He then strangled her to death, prosecutors said, before covering her body with long grass and driving back to Eastbourne. Her body was not discovered until the evening of the next day.
Selamaj denied that the attack was sexually motivated, although he admitted to attacking and strangling Nessa. On Thursday, his attorney said he “did not challenge” the prosecution’s case that the attack was sexually motivated.
Women’s rights groups have called on the government to not only enact harsher punishments for such crimes but also to increase policing and focus on prevention programs to educate men and boys.
“We are angry and devastated at the senseless killing of Sabina Nessa, one of hundreds of women killed each year by an epidemic of male violence,” said Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, adding that people of color “too often” received less public attention when they went missing or were murdered because of inequalities in the justice system.
The initial response to the killings of Nessa and Everard, she added, focused on superficial measures such as street lighting and placed the onus of safety on women.
“There is a desperate need for long-term commitment and funding to address the root causes of male violence against women, and the attitudes that minimize and tolerate abuse,” she said.
The government said last month that it would carry out a sweeping education campaign to address gender-based violence and harassment after it received 180,000 responses to a public request for personal experiences and views. Policing authorities have said that they will now take violence against women as seriously as terrorism, organized crime and child sexual abuse.
In 2021, at least 141 British women were killed by men or in attacks where a man was the primary suspect, according to Counting Dead Women, a project dedicated to tracking such killings.