The men alive because we can’t hang them

A view across the street to the front entrance of Manchester prison, a Victorian, red-brick, castle-like construction with several steeple-like chimneys and a large archway in the middle, the entrance to which is obstructed by five black bollards.The past two weeks it was separately announced that one serial rapist who preyed on women in London was to be released after serving nearly ten years and another, who attacked women and girls mainly in and around London and the surrounding area was to be considered for parole. This naturally has caused outrage. The first was John Worboys, a black cab driver who got away with a series of rapes and other sexual assaults for so long because the police refused to investigate his crimes, a failing that is still the subject of human rights litigation against the Metropolitan Police. The second was Antoni Imiela, known as the “M25 rapist”, who it was reported this week was to be considered for parole in six months’ time, although as a life sentence prisoner, his release can be vetoed by the Home Secretary.

The Guardian describes Imiela as a “former railway worker”; he is in fact also a professional criminal who was jailed for 14 years for a series of armed robberies including a the robbery of a post office at gunpoint in which he demanded they hand over £10,000. Five of his eleven victims were between ten and 14 years of age and he stole a mobile phone from a woman he had raped in Putney, south-west London, and called her mother and bragged that he had just raped her daughter. For the series of rapes he perpetrated from 2001 to 2004, he was given seven life sentences with a minimum of eight years; a further life sentence, minimum 12 years, was added in March 2012 for a rape and sexual assault he committed in 1987, during his previous criminal career. These sentences run concurrently, which means he may only serve the longest single minimum term, although he has already served longer than that.

Imiela might well not be released. John Worboys, unless the parole board is persuaded to reconsider its decision that he is fit for release (and their reasons are, by law, kept secret), will be. This case is part of the sorry saga of the “indeterminate sentences for public protection” (IPPs) introduced by the Labour government which has resulted in some prisoners serving much longer than Worboys for much less, often those with a mental illness, often because the rehabilitation courses they are required to attend to prove they are fit for release are not made available to them. They were abolished under the previous coalition government but the existing sentences were not abrogated — a decision that really should be rectified by new legislation to get people imprisoned for a long time for offences that would not normally justify such a long term of imprisonment out — but as it is suspected that Worboys raped or assaulted many more women than he was convicted of attacking, his other crimes should be investigated so that it be established whether he is a multiple rapist and he can be sentenced accordingly.

Perhaps there is no legal way of ensuring that Worboys remains behind bars. Perhaps when he was sentenced in 2009, it was assumed that an indefinite term meant he would never be released, or that 10 years was a long time and 2017 or 2019 was a time people then did not really envisage — nobody knows if they will even be alive themselves in ten years’ time, especially people in late middle age or older (the judge in that case, David Penry-Davey, died in 2015 aged 73). To us now, his conviction seems a very short time ago, perhaps because he has rarely been out of the news because of the case against the Metropolitan Police and perhaps because his name comes up from time to time in discussion of rape and sexual assault more generally. The fact that his parole conditions will mean he is prohibited from contacting his victims means little if his recorded victims are fewer than a fifth of those he actually assaulted.

However, everything legally possible should be done to make sure these two men are not free again until they are too weak or sick to rape anyone else, if ever. We should also tighten up the law on recidivist sex attackers such that serial rapists who attack in their victims’ homes or as they go about their business get life sentences with minimum terms of 20 years or more, and the minimum terms should escalate by, say, five years for each attack they committed. For men convicted in their 50s, this may well mean that life means life; for younger men, release should be dependent on being rendered physically incapable of raping anyone else. Personally (and as a Muslim) I would have no problem having men like this executed, but capital punishment was abolished and remains off the statute books very largely because of the danger of the wrong person being hanged and the frequency of wrongful long-term imprisonment from at least the 70s onwards (for a mixture of terrorism and sexual offences, especially against children) and evidence from the USA suggests that many of the people wrongly imprisoned would have died on the rope if we had retained the death penalty. However, the fact that we can’t hang these men does not mean they have a right to be released after having caused serious harm to innocent strangers on several occasions each. While they still have the potential to harm anyone, they should remain in prison and if that means for life, so be it.

Image source: Keith Williamson, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

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