UK Government right to end automatic early release of terror offenders – leader comment

Politicians must balance protection of the right to life with protection of the human rights that make UK a free society carefully.

Police search the scene of the terror attack in Streatham High Road, south London (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire)
Police search the scene of the terror attack in Streatham High Road, south London (Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

It is often said, with considerable justification, that the first duty of any government is to protect its citizens from attack.

This most serious task is relatively straightforward in terms of the threat of a military attack by another state, but becomes significantly more complicated when the threat comes from terrorist attacks by its own citizens.

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A free society needs to place considerable importance on preserving the freedoms and humans rights of each and every one of its members, but in doing so there has to be a recognition that the right to life is, by some considerable distance, the most important one.

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Following the recent terrorist attacks in Streatham and London Bridge by men on early release from prison sentences imposed for terror-related offences, the UK Government is to introduce emergency legislation to prevent automatic early release. Instead, terror offenders will have to serve two-thirds of their sentence before a decision is taken about whether it is safe to release them.

Given the risks, this seems like a proportionate response. In Scotland, automatic early release for serious offenders was ended in 2016.

Those willing to kill for one cause or another are much harder to rehabilitate than ordinary criminals, even violent ones. However, ultimately this is not a conflict that will be won by law enforcement. It is a battle for hearts and minds.

Haleema Faraz Khan, mother of the Streatham attacker shot dead after stabbing two people while under police surveillance, spoke of him as being a “nice, polite boy” who was radicalised by viewing extremist material online and meeting like-minded people in prison. He may have once fitted his mother’s description, but at some point in his 20 years of life, he allowed himself to succumb to the truly evil idea that trying to kill random people in the street can ever be justified. It did not matter to him who they were – they could have been pious Muslims for all he knew.

Liberal democracy has the necessary philosophical grounding to defeat the murderous ideology of terrorist extremists like Isis, who claimed to have inspired the Streatham attack. In order to do so, we as a society may need to be more vocal about its merits, particularly among those at risk of being radicalised. But we must also always remember the vital importance of remaining true to the freedoms and human rights that make this a free society.