British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised longer sentences and major changes to the country’s anti-terrorism laws as the fallout from Friday’s terrorist attack in London overshadows the election campaign.
Mr. Johnson has tried to move quickly to defuse criticism of his Conservative government over the deadly incident which saw convicted terrorist Usman Khan kill two people and injure three others before he was shot dead on London Bridge by police. The Prime Minister has vowed to introduce a host of reforms including mandatory minimum 14-year sentences and an end to automatic early release for people convicted of terrorism offences.
"I absolutely deplore that fact that this man was out on the streets ... and we are going to take action against it,” Mr. Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday.
With just over a week to go before Britons vote on Dec. 12, Mr. Johnson has been keen to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Theresa May, who faced two terrorist attacks during the 2017 election including one near London Bridge that killed eight people. Ms. May was immediately put on the defensive by Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn who accused the Conservatives of years of cuts to policing and crime-prevention programs. She never recovered and the Tories nearly lost the election to Labour.
Mr. Johnson has clearly learned from that debacle and taken a far more aggressive approach. As well as promising new reforms, he has gone on the offensive and blamed Mr. Corbyn and previous Labour governments for enacting legislation that allowed Mr. Khan to be released early from prison.
Mr. Khan, 28, was among eight people convicted in February, 2012, of plotting several terrorist attacks including bombing the London Stock Exchange. He was given an indeterminate sentence – which meant it had no fixed end date – with a minimum term of eight years.
Those kinds of sentences were abolished in December, 2012, but not for convictions prior to that date. In 2013, an appeal court quashed Mr. Khan’s sentence and replaced it with a 16-year term, which allowed for automatic release at the halfway point, under a law adopted in 2008. He was released in December, 2018, (his time served took into account the period he spent in jail awaiting trial) and placed in a 13-year probation program that included wearing a GPS ankle bracelet and regular monitoring by police.
Mr. Khan had received permission to travel from his home in Staffordshire, northwest of London, to a “Learning Together” program for ex-offenders, which is run by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.
He showed up to the afternoon session wearing a fake bomb vest and brandishing two large knives. He killed one of the conference organizers, 25-year-old Jack Merritt, and a 23-year-old volunteer named Saskia Jones. Two other injured people remain in hospital and another one has been released.
Mr. Johnson blamed Labour for the 2008 law, which was backed at the time by Mr. Corbyn.
“The reason this killer was out on the streets was because of automatic early release which was brought in by a leftie government,” Mr. Johnson said Sunday.
He added that there were 74 other convicted terrorists currently on the streets who have also been released early, and he promised to toughen their monitoring. However he dodged questions about why the Conservatives, who been in power since 2010, failed to change the law.
“I’m a new prime minister,” he replied. “We take a different approach.”
Mr. Corbyn rejected the criticism and said the government had made deep cuts to services that help prevent terrorism.
"Real security doesn’t only come from strong laws and intelligence, it comes also from effective public services that have the funding they need,” he said in a speech on Sunday. “You can’t keep people safe on the cheap.”
Police are continuing their investigation into the stabbings and on Sunday they released the name of Ms. Jones, who like Mr. Merritt graduated from Cambridge.
“This is an attack on our community and it was intended as such,” Cambridge’s vice-chancellor Stephen Toope told reporters on Sunday. “It was meant to produce a form of terror and sadness and it’s clearly done that. ... It’s made people very very sad.”