Why British leaders are talking aren't talking about Brexit now

Britain's political leaders sparred Sunday over the early release of Usman Khan, who killed two people after serving about half his prison sentence. 

AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
A makeshift memorial for Jack Merritt, the first person named as a victim of Friday's Nov. 30, 2019 terror attack in London, which killed two people and wounded three others.

Britain's political leaders sparred Sunday over who is responsible for the early release of a convicted extremist who launched a stabbing attack in central London that left two dead and injured three.

After a one-day pause out of respect for victims, Friday's attack is dominating the political scene as the Dec. 12 election nears, shifting the focus, at least for the moment, from Brexit and the National Health Service to issues of security and criminal justice.

The argument centers over the early release from prison of Usman Khan, who served roughly half his sentence before being set free. He was able to stab five people before being shot dead by police despite conditions imposed on his release that were supposed to protect public safety.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, portraying himself as tough on crime, on Sunday blamed Khan's freedom on changes in sentencing rules made by the last Labour Party government before Johnson's Conservatives took power in 2010. He promised to toughen sentencing laws. "I think it is repulsive that individuals as dangerous as this man should be allowed out after serving only eight years and that's why we are going to change the law," he told BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

Marr repeatedly challenged the prime minister by pointing out that the Conservatives had been in power for nearly a decade and not taken any steps to change the situation Johnson was complaining about.

The accuracy of Johnson's claim was challenged by Ed Davey, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who told Sky News that the prime minister was misleading the public about the current law regarding the early release of prisoners. "Either he's incompetent and doesn't know the law, or he's deliberately misleading people when we've got a tragedy on our hands, and I'm afraid, either way, it does not look good for the prime minister," Davey said.

He said Johnson has a track record of misleading the public on this and other matters, including Brexit: "I'm really alarmed that we are on the brink of having a prime minister who is the most untruthful prime minister of all time."

Regardless of who is to blame, it is clear that setting Khan free before his sentence was concluded put the public at risk at a time when the official terrorism threat level had recently been lowered because of a perceived reduction in the risk of jihadis returning from Syria to Britain to launch attacks.

The Ministry of Justice has begun an urgent review of cases like Khan's that might pose a threat, including a review of the conditions governing the movements of every convicted terrorist who has been released from prison.

Officials say about 74 people fit this category. Conditions typically including the wearing of an electronic device that allows police to track a person's movements, a curfew, limitations on internet use and smartphone use, and reporting on a regular basis to police.
Police have said that Khan appears to have been in compliance with the conditions governing his release, which weren't made public, but nonetheless was able to carry out a deadly assault that didn't rely on sophisticated weaponry or detonation of an explosive device.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the Conservatives of trying to provide security "on the cheap" and said he doesn't necessarily agree that all terrorist prisoners should be required to serve their full terms. He said it depends on the circumstances and called for the Parole Board and the probation service to be more actively involved.

Johnson's Conservatives quickly tried to capitalize on Corbyn's statement in a clear indication that the extremist attack is now fair game for political brinksmanship. The party tweeted a promise — "We will change the law so terrorists serve every single day of their sentence" — along with a warning about Corbyn's opposition to this plan.

"Who do you trust to keep you safe?" it asks.

Working with prisoners

Three of the five people who were killed or wounded in the stabbing attack were former Cambridge University students or staff members who had gathered for an event designed to connect graduate students with prisoners, police and the university said Sunday.

The two dead were identified as Saskia Jones, 23, and Jack Merritt, 25, who had already been named by his family as having perished in the attack Friday near London Bridge. "Both were graduates of the University of Cambridge and were involved in the Learning Together program — Jack as a coordinator and Saskia as a volunteer," police said.

Started five years ago, the program was designed to bring graduate students together with prisoners to study criminology in an effort to reduce stigma and marginalization experienced by many inmates.

Jones' family described her as having "a great passion for providing invaluable support to victims of criminal injustice, which led her to the point of recently applying for the police graduate recruitment program."
The family said she wanted to specialize in victim support. Merritt's family said he "lived his principles" and "believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog."

The attacker, Usman Khan, was apparently attending the event and had returned for the afternoon session when he started stabbing people. Police believe he acted alone.

Khan was a convicted terrorist who had secured early release from prison. He was shot dead by police after he was restrained by civilians. Officers opened fire after he flashed what looked like a suicide vest, but it was a fake device.

One of those who was wounded was a university staff member. The three survivors were not named. Officials said one was released from a hospital Sunday, and the others were in stable condition.

The gathering had been meant to celebrate the fifth year of the program, university Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope said. "What should have been a joyous opportunity to celebrate the achievements of this unique and socially transformative program, hosted by our Institute of Criminology, was instead disrupted by an unspeakable criminal act," Toope said.

Some people at the event, including prison staff and former prisoners, put their lives in danger to restrain the attacker until police arrived, officials said.

Loraine Gelsthorpe, director of the university's Institute of Criminology, said "they worked together selflessly to bring an end to this tragedy and to save further lives."

British media reports indicate that the group included a convicted murderer who was on a day-release program at the time. Police and university officials have not confirmed the account.

Doctors are dealing with the survivors' physical injuries, but it may be weeks before mental trauma can be assessed, said Dr. Vin Diwakar, medical director for the NHS in London. "The psychological impact of such events sometimes only comes to light in the days and weeks afterwards," he said.

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