UK's Johnson Pressured on Jail Terms After London Attack

2019-11-30

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LONDON - The London Bridge attack pushed law and order toward the top of the British political agenda Saturday, with days to go before a snap election, after police said the assailant had previously been convicted of terrorism offenses but freed early from prison.

Usman Khan, wearing a fake suicide vest and wielding knives, went on the rampage at a conference on criminal rehabilitation beside London Bridge on Friday, killing two people. The 28-year-old Briton was wrestled to the ground by bystanders, then was shot dead by police.

Police said Saturday that Khan had been convicted in 2012 for his part in an al-Qaida-inspired plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange. He was released in December 2018 subject to conditions.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, criticized the government's sentencing policies.

"There's got to be a very full investigation," said Corbyn, who is seeking to depose Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the election on December 12 but trails in opinion polls.

"I think there is also a question about what the probation service were doing ... and whether the parole board should have been involved in deciding whether or not he should have been allowed to be released from prison in the first place," he said.

Mandatory sentences

Earlier, Johnson said the attack was a terrorist act and vowed to end a practice whereby serious offenders can be automatically let out of prison early.

"I have long said that this system simply isn't working," he said after visiting the scene of the attack Saturday.

Those convicted of a serious terrorism offense should face a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 years, he said later.

Islamic State said the attack was carried out by one of its fighters and was in response to its calls to target countries that had been part of a coalition fighting the jihadist group, according to its Amaq news agency. The group did not provide any evidence for its assertion.

A man and a woman were killed in the attack, with local media naming one of the victims as Jack Merritt, a course coordinator for Learning Together, a prisoner rehabilitation program that held the conference at Fishmongers' Hall.

Three people remained hospitalized, with two victims in stable condition and the third suffering from less serious injuries, according to the National Health Service.

Echoes of 2017

Police said they were continuing their investigation by searching two addresses in the Staffordshire and Stoke areas of central England, with the country's top counterterrorism officer saying they were not looking for any other suspects.

"We have found no evidence to suggest anybody else was involved in this attack," said Neil Basu. "Our investigative priority at this time is to ensure that there is no related outstanding threat to the public."

London Bridge was the scene of an attack during the 2017 election when three militants drove a van into pedestrians and then attacked people in the surrounding area, killing eight people and injuring at least 48.

Islamic State said its fighters were responsible for that attack, but British authorities cast doubt on those claims. The 2017 attack focused attention on cuts to policing since the ruling Conservatives took power in 2010.

Friday's attack prompted a pause in election campaigning, but scaled-back activities resumed Saturday ahead of the election that could decide the fate of Brexit.

Five polls published late Saturday showed the Conservatives ahead of Labour but with margins ranging from 6 to 15 points. Pollster BMG said it was possible no party would win a majority in the 650-seat Parliament.

Foreign interventions

On Sunday, Corbyn will condemn foreign interventions such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 for stoking hatred, The Observer newspaper reported, as security and law and order feature more prominently in the campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who is due to attend a NATO summit in London next week, spoke with Johnson on Saturday and expressed his condolences over the attack, the White House said in a statement.

Britain's police and politicians were joined on Saturday by Queen Elizabeth in praising those who intervened to thwart the assailant.

"I express my enduring thanks to the police and emergency services, as well as the brave individuals who put their own lives at risk to selflessly help and protect others," she said.