The terrorist attack in London on the 29th November 2019 has again highlighted the issue of rehabilitation when considering those convicted of terror related offences. The fact that this terrorist attacker was fought off by convicted murderers, who were attending the same rehabilitation conference as part of their sentence, demonstrates that terror-related crimes are criminal offences which need to be addressed separately by the British judicial system.
A Matter of CONTEST
The British Government launched the CONTEST, or as it is more generally know, PREVENT scheme in early 2003. This multi-agency approach was designed to target those who were at risk of radicalisation or presently involved in such activities. Whilst designed to engage with a range of ideologies, including the far-right, it has been criticised by The Muslim Council for Britain as targeting Islam. The scheme allowed partner agencies, such as educational institutions, health care providers and law enforcement agencies to refer individuals who were identified as being at risk of radicalisation towards relevant channels. These ranged from education courses to mental health services through to the criminal courts if necessary. Whilst peddled as a success by the government, regular terrorist attacks and well documented convictions of individuals have led many to question the success of the PREVENT scheme. Psychologist Christopher Dean, who runs the Healthy Identity Intervention scheme, a similar initiative to PREVENT, and the main de-radicalisation programme in the UK, has stated that there is no guarantee such de-radicalisation initiatives work.
Britain, like many countries in Europe has struggled in recent years to combat a divergence in public opinion which can be considered to have radical undertones and extremist positions. A desire to control borders and restrict immigration as well as the fear of restricted economic opportunities and erosion of traditional, national culture, have led to the formation of political parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AFD) or movements such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Pegida.
The EDL is a far-right extremist movement founded by Steven Yaxley-Lennon which uses street protests to campaign against what they believe to be the expansion of Islam in Britain. Yaxley-Lennon has since left the EDL which has declined in influence and membership but still regularly organises marches across England. Yaxley-Lennon is better known by the name Tommy Robinson and is a well-known figure in the British media and has served as an advisor to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Robinson is currently serving a third term in prison for filming Muslim defendants attending court in relation to child sexual offences despite a court order blacking out media coverage. Those who fuel the EDL and similar organisations with their xenophobia and racist views are also referred to PREVENT, should they be identified as suitable or imprisoned.
The numbers of right-wing referrals to PREVENT are significantly lower and this may help form the arguments made by the Muslim Council of Britain of discrimination.
It’s the prison system, stupid!
With the success of PREVENT up for debate eyes logically fall to Britain’s hugely overcrowded prison system. The United Kingdom has a prison population of 83,000 people spread between 117 prisons. This is despite less than 8% of criminal offences resulting in a suspect being charged or put before a court in 2018-2019. Chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system is a legacy of the financial crash and subsequent years of government austerity. In an effort to increase space and reduce cost, it is commonplace for suspects to serve the first half of their criminal sentence inside prison and the second half out “on licence”. This refers to a situation in which convicted criminals live in the community and are supposed to engage and comply with set requirements. If suspected of committing further criminal offences, or not complying with set conditions such as a curfew, those out on licence are immediately re-called to prison. Whilst technically those on licence are not supposed to be violent or sexual offenders, there have been well publicised mistakes and some convicted of terrorist offences have also released into the community without serving all of their sentence in prison.
This system is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Britain has the highest costs of incarceration in Europe. On average Britain spends £43,070 keeping one person in prison a year. France, spends £32,215 per prisoner despite having a similar national and prison population.
A notable example that typifies the problems faced by Britain is that of Anjem Choudary. Choudary had been suspected of preaching extremist sermons and had been linked to weapons training facilities in the UK as well as confirmed terrorist attackers but successfully avoided prosecution until September 2016. He was convicted under section 12 of the Terrorism Act 2000, notably inviting support for a prescribed Terrorist Organisation (The so-called Islamic State) between June 2014 and March 2015 and was sentenced to five years and six months in prison. However, Choudary was released on licence from prison in October 2018 after having served two years and three months. Whilst not convicted of any terrorist attacks Choudary has been a source of inspiration for many terrorists through his activities. Including Usman Khan, the man who killed two rehabilitation workers on November 2019.
Khan was known to be a close associate of Choudary’s who’s influence on British homegrown terrorism cannot be understated. Khan pled guilty in 2012 to preparing an act of terrorism. Khan was known to have links to a group hoping to plant a bomb at the London Stock Exchange as well as having ambitions to establish a terrorist training school in Kashmir. Khan was released on licence in December 2018 after he went to the court of appeal and had his sentence reduced to sixteen years. He was released after eight years in custody, including time spent on remand before trial without being put before a parole board.
Whilst those convicted of terror offences are no longer released automatically, they can still serve the second half of their sentence on licence should a parole board deem them to not be a threat to society. This is the case with Choudary. Whilst he is on licence and no longer contributing to the costs of £43,070 per prisoner, he is costing the UK taxpayer over £2 million pounds a year in surveillance by the security services who obviously disagree with the parole boards judgement. Whilst some nations maintain a criminal offence of “treason” should there be proof of actions intended to do harm against the state and its citizens, there is no such offence in Britain.
Time to change the system?
As such, suspected terrorists in Britain are often sentenced for lesser offences to ensure they are at least charged with an offence. The sheer weight of evidence needed to ensure a conviction in a complicated terrorism case is made even harder when offences are often committed abroad. This is exactly what has happened with individuals that have returned to the UK after being suspected of fighting with so called Islamic State. With no way of proving these individuals were present at atrocities known to have been committed, British courts are left seeking convictions for offences such as “supporting a prescribed terrorist organisation”. The problem with this is, that when placed in front of the parole board and with no confirmed examples of violence or bloodshed, it is harder to justify somebody’s continued detention if it cannot be proved they ever committed terrorist atrocities. The sentence is therefore likely to result in minimal time in prison before release on licence for extremely dangerous individuals who are known to have travelled abroad and engaged directly with terrorist organisations.
As such, this problem looks set to continue. The government flagship model of PREVENT has been largely criticised and with a refusal to commit large numbers to life imprisonment, it is hard to envisage that there will not be further terrorist attacks committed by those on licence, under surveillance or previously known to government agencies.