Lawyers ‘preparing to fight Government’ over emergency terror legislation

Lawyers are gearing up to fight the Government over plans for emergency legislation to stop more terrorists being automatically freed from jail, a law firm has said.

The Government faces a race against time to pass the urgent laws prompted by the Streatham attack before the next terrorist is due to be released from prison on February 28, with more scheduled in March.

A target of February 27 has been set to rush the Bill through Parliament as police chiefs warned that the threat of terrorism is “not diminishing”.

But the plans could be met with several legal challenges as lawyers argue the rules cannot be brought into force against sentences already handed down.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the emergency legislation was needed to make sure that offenders serve two-thirds of their sentence before they are considered eligible for release, rather than the current halfway mark, and they would first need to be reviewed by a panel of specialist judges and psychiatrists at the Parole Board.

But Raj Chada, head of the criminal defence department and a partner at firm Hodge Jones & Allen, told the PA news agency: “Lots of lawyers are looking at a challenge.

“In particular, there may be an argument that a change to existing clients who have already been sentenced would be contrary to Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

“You cannot create a new offence after an act has been committed, and you cannot impose a higher penalty than that would have been imposed at the time that the offence was committed.

“So, no punishment can be retroactive.”

Streatham terror attack
Streatham terror attack

Officials are confident they have the flexibility to change how an offender serves their sentence, by extending the time they spend behind bars rather than on licence.

The legislation is expected to be introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday with the aim of getting royal assent on February 27.

The Government has not ruled out derogating – effectively suspending – the ECHR in order to apply the new measures.

But Mr Chada warned this could result in a “political dogfight”, adding: “Article 7 cannot be suspended. The Government cannot say that this is to be used as an emergency measure.

“Instead, they would have to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the Convention entirely – and that would be a political dogfight, even with their large majority.”

It is understood Sunderland shopkeeper Mohammed Zahir Khan is due to be released on February 28, while around five other terrorists are expected to be let out in March unless the new law is in force.

The father, originally from Birmingham, was jailed for four-and-a-half years in May 2018 for posting messages and material that was supportive of IS on social media.

Streatham terror attack
Streatham terror attack

The barrister who represented him in court, Robert Dacre, said he would not comment on the case when asked by PA if he planned to challenge the emergency laws which could prevent his imminent release from prison.

In the third attack in as many months, Sudesh Amman wore a fake suicide belt as he grabbed a knife from a shop in Streatham High Road, south London, on Sunday, before stabbing two bystanders.

The 20-year-old had been jailed for possessing and distributing terrorist documents in December 2018, but was freed automatically halfway through his sentence less than a fortnight ago.

He was put under 24-hour police surveillance on his release after it is understood security services regarded him as an “extremely concerning individual”.

Two inmates wearing fake suicide belts stabbed a prison officer at maximum security jail HMP Whitemoor last month.

And Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were killed by Usman Khan in November when he launched his attack armed with two knives and wearing a fake suicide vest during a prisoner rehabilitation programme near London Bridge – nearly a year after he was released halfway through a 16-year jail sentence for terror offences.

Streatham terror attack
Streatham terror attack

There are 224 terrorists in prison in Britain, with most thought to be holding Islamist extremist views, according to the latest published figures to the end of September.

As many as 50 terrorists could be freed from jail this year, figures suggest.

Counter-terror police currently have around 3,000 subjects of interest.

The UK’s terror threat level is currently set at “substantial”, meaning an attack is likely.