The Telegraph 2024-02-05 06:00:32

Forty Bibby Stockholm asylum seekers converting to Christianity

Forty asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge are converting to Christianity amid growing fears that migrants are claiming to have changed their religion in order to stay in the country.

Nearly one in seven of the 300 migrants on the barge in Portland, Dorset, are attending churches under the supervision of local faith leaders, according to a church elder.

The disclosure comes amid a growing row over the role of UK churches in supporting the conversion to Christianity of migrants including Abdul Shokoor Ezedi, the suspected Clapham chemical attacker.

Ezedi was granted asylum on that basis, despite having been convicted of two sex offences three years earlier.

On Monday, James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, is expected to receive an initial report setting out the full facts of the case as government sources questioned whether it was “really possible to credibly substantiate the validity of a religious conversion”.

Mr Cleverly is expected to consider whether any legal changes are needed to ensure tighter scrutiny of asylum seekers’ conversion claims and to enable the automatic deportation of convicted foreign criminals such as Ezedi, who received a two-year suspended sentence for sexual assault and exposure before being granted leave to remain in the UK.

As the police manhunt for Ezedi entered its fourth day, Scotland Yard offered a reward of £20,000 for information leading to the arrest of the 35-year-old. 

He is alleged to have left a 31-year-old mother with “life-changing injuries” and injured her two daughters, aged eight and three, when he attacked them with a corrosive chemical in south-west London.

Ministers are understood to be concerned at the way church support for Ezedi’s conversion was critical to apparently persuading an immigration tribunal judge to back his appeal for asylum, despite the Home Office twice refusing his request to stay.

Ezedi claimed on his second attempt that he had converted to Christianity, putting his life at risk if returned to his native Afghanistan. A priest vouched for his conversion at his third appeal, saying he was “wholly committed” to the Christian faith.

Last week, friends of Ezidi told The Telegraph he was a “good Muslim” who bought half a Halal sheep every fortnight, despite his apparent conversion.

A government source said: “There are clearly general questions about whether it is really possible to credibly substantiate the validity of a religious conversion, particularly where that opinion might be a main defence and carry very important implications.”

The number of asylum seekers claiming to have converted is not published by the Home Office, but on Sunday David Rees, a church elder and education consultant, told the BBC’s Sunday programme that 40 asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm had converted or were in the process of becoming Christians.

“Local faith leaders have visited the barge and work with the council and the barge management in looking after these guys,” he said, adding that the migrants had either converted in their home countries or on Christian Alpha or other courses in the UK.

The Alpha course, which introduces worshippers to the faith, was taken by Emad Al Swealmeen, the Liverpool bomber. The Iraqi asylum seeker blew himself up outside a maternity hospital in 2021, four years after his confirmation at the city’s cathedral.

Mr Elder said he was confident that all the 40 Bibby Stockholm migrants were undergoing genuine conversions.

“Obviously, we need to make sure that they believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and repent of their sins and also they want to start a new life in the church,” he said.

“So those are the sort of questions that we ask them, and they have to give a public testimony, at their baptism, which they did in their native language, and it was translated into English. There were no qualms at all about the content of that testimony, which was clear and conclusive about their faith in Jesus Christ.”

However, Tim Loughton, a member of the home affairs committee and a former minister, said he was concerned that Christian conversion had become a scam, claiming there were cases in which some asylum seekers had got crucifix tattoos to reinforce their claims.

“We have got to have a much more rigorous scrutiny process for those claiming to have converted and the basis on which it would be dangerous to return them to their home countries,” he said.

The Home Office said caseworkers were trained to be able to establish the credibility of claims around religious beliefs so that protection was only granted to those in genuine need.

Guidance tells them to assess a claim “in the round” and not take the word of a priest as “determinative”. An asylum seeker’s participation in church activities must be considered, along with the timing of their conversion, knowledge of the faith, and the opinions of other congregation members as to the genuineness of the conversion.

It is believed Home Office caseworkers recommended that Ezedi’s application should be rejected under rules that anyone on the sex offenders register, as he was, should be barred.

However, it is understood the tribunal judge ruled that this was outweighed by the risk of religious persecution if, as a Christian convert, he was returned to Afghanistan.

Officials for the Church of England said they could find no record of any member of their clergy supporting his asylum application. A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales suggested it held no central records regarding conversion, and that decisions were made on a diocesan level.

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, came under fire on Sunday for claiming that Ezedi’s case was “not really about asylum”, saying: “This is about, obviously, the attack on a mother and her children, which was horrific and obviously impacted others as well, some people who went to her assistance and the emergency services.”

Warning over Ireland’s threat to UK as Sunak visits Ulster

Ireland would be “no friend” to the UK under Sinn Fein, a report backed by two former defence secretaries warned as Rishi Sunak visited Northern Ireland to mark the restoration of power to Stormont…

Suspected XL Bully dogs that mauled grandmother to death owned by dog breeding drill rapper

Two suspected XL Bullies which mauled a 68-year-old pensioner to death while she was visiting her grandson were owned by a drill rapper and dog breeder.

Esther Martin was found seriously injured after she is believed to have been attacked by two of the now banned breed, at a property in Jaywick Sands, near Clacton-on-Sea.

She died at the scene and Ashley Warren, an aspiring rapper who goes by the name Wyless Man and who is said to have kept eight dogs, has been arrested for dangerous dogs offences and remains in custody.

Police said members of the public showed “unflinching bravery” for trying to rescue Mrs Martin during the attack at around 4pm on Saturday before the dogs were shot dead by police.

Officers said the breeds of the dogs were yet to be determined but Mr Warren posted a Facebook advert selling puppies for £500 in November.

Mrs Martin’s devastated daughters said there were two adult dogs and six puppies at the property and they believed them to be XL Bullies.

Neighbours told how they saw a man attempting to smash his way into the property with a spade after going to check on the woman and seeing blood on the walls.

One resident said: “He was looking through the window and saying, ‘There’s claret up the wall, everywhere.’ I heard two shots and there were about five shots after. It’s terrible. I saw them bringing the body out. There was blood all over her, from here [pointing to his stomach] up [pointing to his head]. There was blood all in her hair.”

A woman living on the same street said: “He was looking through the window with his spade trying to get in but he couldn’t because the door was locked and he was shouting and swearing at the dog. It wasn’t a nightmare for him because he was not in there. It was a nightmare for the person who was in there.”

Gunshots could be heard from the house after the police arrived and Julie Coleman, 67, who lives opposite the house, said that she came home to find “shouting and hollering and things going on”.

“We heard dogs barking which set our dogs off and this guy picked up a brick from the neighbour’s garden opposite and smashed it through the window. Apparently, he was here to check up on the lady for some reason. The neighbour next door got the whole thing on her door ring bell, dogs barking and a boy coming out of the house asking for help,” she said.

XL Bullies, which have been blamed for a rise in dog attacks, were banned in January and it is a criminal offence to own one of the dogs in England and Wales without a certificate.

Owners will also have to follow a strict set of rules around their care, including having them neutered, keeping them on a lead and muzzling them in public.

Following the attack, Kelly Fretwell, one of the victim’s daughters, said the dogs involved in the attack were XL Bullies.

There were eight XL Bullies present in the house, six puppies and the two adults who attacked when her mother was left there alone, she said.

All eight dogs were owned by Mr Warren and Ms Fretwell said her mother was visiting the area to see her 11-year-old grandson.

“She was amazing,” Ms Fretwell said. “She was retired and trying to bring her life back on track after the passing of my sister two years ago.”

The family say that although the attack had taken place around 4pm they did not find out what had happened until 10pm when police arrived at her front door.

She said: “This is a very distressing time for our family. If someone knocked on your door at night to say that your mum had been mauled to death, would you believe them?”

“There could have been two victims, my nephew has not only lost his mum and grandmother but he had to witness all this violence. He could have been killed as well.”

The victim’s other daughter, Sonia Martin, told the BBC her mother had previously expressed concerns about the “dangerous and aggressive dogs”.

“There were adult XL bully dogs in the property, and my mum had raised concerns to the owners about them being dangerous and quite aggressive.”

She said she had been informed that the puppies had started fighting and her mother had been told by the dogs’ owner to “put a broom in among them, to distract them”.

She said: “That’s when she was attacked.”

Chief Supt Glen Pavelin, from Essex Police, said officers arrived within “minutes” of reports of the attack, but that “sadly” the 68-year-old victim died at the scene.

He said that although the victim has not been formally identified, the force has confirmed it is Mrs Martin.

“I want to express my condolences to her family and friends,” he said.

He added: “We believe Esther has been attacked by two dogs inside the house.

“When Essex Police officers entered the house, their priority was – as always – to keep their community safe. Their unflinching bravery and professionalism ensure that there is no ongoing threat to the people of Essex.

“Both dogs were destroyed inside the house. I would like to thank local people who tried to get into the house to help Esther – you should be proud.”

He said Mrs Martin and the arrested man were “of the same family” and added: “The breed of the dogs cannot be confirmed but we are working with experts to identify the breed of the dogs.”

Rape victim facing six-year trial delay says CPS has ‘revictimised’ her

A woman is facing a five-and-a-half year wait for justice after the trial of her alleged rapist was delayed and then postponed hours before it was due to begin, The Telegraph can reveal.

The victim reported the alleged rape to police in September 2019 but found out last week that the defendant in the case may now not stand trial until early 2025.

Sarah (not her real name) has accused the criminal justice system of “revictimising” her and believes the case illustrates why rape conviction rates are so poor.

While the number of rape prosecutions has improved in recent years, more than 60 per cent of complainants withdraw before their case gets to court, with delays being cited as one of the main factors.

If Sarah’s case is delayed until next year, it is believed it will be one of the longest waits for a rape case currently in the system.

The alleged attack was reported to Cleveland Police in September 2019, but it was more than three years before the suspect was charged with rape and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

A plea hearing took place in January last year at which the defendant pleaded not guilty, with a three-day trial set to start last week.

But the day before the case was due to get under way at Teesside Crown Court, Sarah was informed the defence barristers were busy with another matter and so the trial would have to be postponed.

Sarah has been advised not to seek counselling until the trial has concluded and has also been warned that because of the length of time it has taken to bring the case to court, the defendant might get a more lenient sentence.

‘Criminal justice system has revictimised me’

Speaking from her home in the northeast of England, the woman has been left questioning whose side the justice system is on, saying it was illustrative of why so many rape victims withdraw from prosecutions before their cases get to court.

She told The Telegraph: “The criminal justice system has revictimised me and there is nothing I can do.

“The CPS say they want to improve the number of rape convictions but is it any wonder that victims walk away when it takes this long.”

Sarah said she was attacked by a stranger in March 2019 and went to police in September that year to report the offence.

She said she heard very little about how the investigation was going but then in October 2022 – more than three years after going to police – was informed the suspect had been charged.

He was originally due to appear at a Magistrates’ Court on 7 November 2022, but owing to a legal blunder, the hearing did not take place until 16 December of that year.

The matter was then sent to the Teesside Crown Court for a plea hearing which took place in January last year.

Chronic court backlogs meant that the earliest the trial could be listed for was January this year.

The hearing should have begun last Tuesday, but with just hours to go, Sarah was informed it had been postponed.

“I had prepared myself mentally and was ready to go to court and give evidence,” she explained. “It was only listed to be a short trial and I was expecting to be called on the first day, but then on Monday afternoon at about 4pm I got another phone call to say that the defence team was busy elsewhere and so they were going to have to postpone the trial.

“I was absolutely devastated, it felt like the whole system was working against me rather than to support me.”

There will now be a hearing this month when a new trial date will be decided, but Sarah said she has been warned that because of the backlogs it could only be this time next year.

‘I am determined to fight on’

She said: “We are about to pass the fifth anniversary of the day my life changed forever and I am still waiting to get justice.

“The CPS say they want to improve the number of rape convictions but is it any wonder that victims walk away when it takes this long.

“This is the whole reason that people do not come forward. I do not blame victims who do not come forward, but I am determined to fight on.

“If the CPS and the courts are serious about improving the number of rape convictions then they have to find a way of speeding up the system. Nobody who has not been through this can begin to understand how traumatic it is.”

A CPS spokesman said: “We understand the devastating impact delays can have on rape victims and thanks to our joint working with the police we are reducing the time taken to charge these awful crimes.  

“In this case we provided Cleveland Police with a clear action plan before authorising charges of rape against the suspect so we could build the strongest possible case to put before the court.

“We are clear victims of sexual offences should never delay seeking the support they need.”

A spokesman for the local police force which investigated the case said: “Cleveland Police recognises the significant impact this type of abhorrent crime has on victims, and that any delay to the investigation can compound this.

“Officers investigating this type of crime are dealing with often complex circumstances, however, this should not lead to significant delay to bring charges and any challenges should be swiftly overcome by agencies working together as effectively as possible.”

MoJ: We know much more needs to be done

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The latest figures show we are helping more victims get the justice they deserve, with more cases reaching the Crown Court and a 48 per cent increase in adult rape cases being prosecuted in the last calendar year.

“But we know much more needs to be done, which is why we are recruiting around 1,000 new judges and letting our courts run at full throttle by lifting the cap on the number of days they can sit for a third year.”

Official figures show that to the year ending June 2023 there were 68,109 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales, but in the same period just over two per cent of cases resulted in someone being charged.

In December a report by Rape Crisis revealed that the number of adult rape cases waiting to get to court had reached a record high of 2,591.

And according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, at the end of September 2022 there were more than 300 Crown Court cases that remained unresolved after four years.

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “We are still only prosecuting a small proportion of rape reports, and survivors who do see charges brought are having to wait longer than victims of any other crime type to have their case heard in court – often waiting years in limbo and having court dates repeatedly rescheduled.

“On top of this, they are often advised not to have therapy as their therapy notes may be shared with the police, lawyers and courtroom in an inappropriate attempt to discredit them.

“This leaves survivors in an impossible position where they are forced to choose between pursuing justice and healing, and has a devastating impact on their lives.”

She went on: “It is little wonder the number of victims withdrawing from prosecutions is continually rising. The lack of political will to deal with this long-standing crisis is a national scandal which undermines the very fabric of the justice system.”

Gillian Keegan under fire after claiming Clapham attack case ‘not really about asylum’

Gillian Keegan has come under fire for claiming a chemical attack allegedly carried out by an Afghan refugee given leave to remain in the UK despite being convicted of a sex offence was “not really about asylum”.

The Education Secretary was criticised for her remarks as police continued the manhunt for Abdul Ezedi, who is suspected to have carried out the attack.

Ezedi arrived illegally in the UK from Afghanistan on the back of a lorry in 2016 and was denied asylum twice, but was granted leave to remain in 2021 or 2022 after claiming he had converted to Christianity.

A 31-year-old woman believed to be known to him was attacked with a corrosive alkaline substance, along with her two children, and remains “very poorly” and sedated in hospital. The injuries to her daughters, aged three and eight, are “not likely to be life-changing”.

Calls to tighten British asylum laws have grown after it emerged that Ezedi had been convicted of sexual assault and exposure in 2018.

Asked how he had been allowed to stay in the country, Ms Keegan told Sky’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips: “My understanding is the Home Secretary has asked for all the details.

“But this is not really about asylum – this is about obviously the attack on a mother and her children, which was horrific and obviously impacted others as well, some people who went to her assistance and the emergency services.”

When Mr Phillips said the case was “obviously” about flaws in the asylum system, Ms Keegan accused him of “conflating the two”.

“Clearly, what we say is anybody who commits crimes is not able to stay in this country, so if you have a sentence of more than 12 months you’re not allowed to stay if you have a criminal record,” she said.

“We don’t want to have people in this country who have criminal records, and there are various steps, actually, in the various Bills. The Nationality and Borders Bill tightened it up and the new Bill has tightened it up again. But in this particular case he was granted [asylum].”

Asked why Ezedi had been free to “roam the streets”, the minister said that was “something that we need to get to the bottom of”. Pressed on whether she was concerned about the case, she replied: “I’m concerned, actually, that there’s a mum and two children who are [in hospital].”

But Sir John Hayes, the chairman of the Common Sense Group of Tory MPs, said: “The two issues are intimately associated. You can’t separate the failures of our asylum system with the fact that this bloke was in this country. They are, by their nature, linked – you can’t separate them.

“So I think Trevor Phillips is right that the things are intrinsically connected, and we have to review our whole system of asylum in this country. It’s no use saying these things aren’t linked – of course they’re linked. He was here as a successful asylum seeker.”

Sir John, a former Home Office minister, had previously said he would write to James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, calling on him to urgently review the asylum rules.

Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK, said: “The Clapham attack is all about the Tories’ total failure to stop illegal immigration, failure to deport foreign criminals and failure to protect British citizens. For a Tory minister to deny this shows how out of touch they are.”

Greg Smith, the Tory MP for Buckingham, said: “The case quite clearly demonstrates that we need to be far tougher on offenders being able to remain in the United Kingdom, by whatever means they have entered the country – legal, illegal, asylum routes, whatever it may be. 

“If you’re a convicted sex offender, there’s no place for you here. Until we can guarantee that, there is a problem.”

The row came as a shadow minister suggested Ezedi should not have been granted asylum in the UK. Asked by Phillips on the same show whether there was “something wrong” with a system that allowed Ezedi to stay in Britain, Sir Chris Bryant said yes.

He added: “In the main, on the face of it, if everything that we have been told is true then it seems absolutely extraordinary that the British people should be put at such risk from this person. Of course it’s something we might need to look at.”

Tory MPs have claimed Ezedi should never have been given refugee status in the first place, with prominent backbenchers calling for the entire system to be reviewed.

Miriam Cates, who co-chairs the New Conservative group, said the “shocking and tragic case” showed the “urgent need to tighten up our asylum processes”.

Queen Elizabeth II memorial ‘must make good use of public money’

A national memorial to Queen Elizabeth II must make “good use” of public money, her former private secretary has said.

Lord Janvrin, one of the late Queen’s most loyal and trusted aides, will chair the committee tasked with choosing how best to commemorate her. The committee meets for the first time at Buckingham Palace on Monday.

The 77-year-old acknowledged that the national memorial must be modern enough to engage future generations, appealing to both young and old. The public will be invited to have its say, most likely through feedback rather than a vote.

Lord Janvrin said: “The committee will be very alive to the current economic situation and very aware that, in moving forward with this project, we need to take that into account.

“That said, I think there is widespread support for some kind of memorial and I think it’s our duty to try and match that expectation by being very clear about good use of public money.”

He said his team would be guided by the monarch’s “relentless common sense” and “practical approach”, adding: “I think that the Queen herself, who I worked with for 20 years, always thought it was not the place for her to be at the sort of cutting edge of fashion.

“But we need to have produced some kind of memorial that will engage people in the future. Somehow, we’ve got to mix tradition with modernity. And we have in both the structure – the monument – and the legacy, quite a canvas to try to engage younger people and the whole nation.”

The committee will make recommendations for both a permanent memorial and a national legacy programme to be announced in 2026 – which would have been the late Queen’s 100th birthday year.

Appointees include Baroness Amos, the Labour peer, Sir William Shawcross, the Queen Mother’s official biographer, and Alex Holmes, an anti-bullying campaigner and the deputy chief executive of The Diana Award.

Lord Janvrin, who worked at Buckingham Palace from 1987 until 2007 and was appointed as the late Queen’s private secretary in 1999, described the committee as “a very talented group of people with a wide range of expertise, experience and contacts to manage this important national project”.

The independent body has been tasked with considering and recommending proposals to the King and the Prime Minister over the next two years. Charles, 75, is taking a “very close interest” in the project, and other members of the Royal family will be consulted.

One of the committee’s first duties will be to consult experts in relevant fields in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that knowledge from across the UK is shared. Further appointments will be made to the committee in due course.

Describing the importance of establishing a national memorial, Lord Janvrin added: “The Queen was our longest-reigning monarch. She was there during a period of huge social and economic change.

“I think it would represent the feelings that were so evident at the time of her funeral if we had a significant national memorial to her memory, both in terms of the monument and a legacy programme. There was a real sense in those days after her death of just how important she had been and the contribution that she made to the life of the nation.”

The Government has said it would support the proposals, but also consider other funding options as the project develops.

The committee is aware of the pitfalls of previous royal tributes. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park was plagued by problems including spiralling costs, flooding, faulty pumps and injuries to visitors who slipped while paddling in the water.

Lord Janvrin said: “We can learn from previous experience and, indeed, we are preparing to look closely… I think there’s quite a lot of experience to draw. We really do have a blank sheet and no one has at any stage said this is ruled out.”

Man pushed onto tracks at Oxford Circus Tube station

A man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after another man was pushed onto the tracks of a busy London Underground station on Saturday afternoon.

Passengers on the platform of Oxford Circus station, in the West End of the capital, helped the man to safety before a train pulled in, British Transport Police (BTP) said. 

The victim was not injured, and detectives are asking witnesses to the incident to come forward with information. 

A 25-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, and is currently being questioned in police custody.

A BTP statement said: “Officers attended the station at around 3pm following reports that a man had pushed another man on the tracks.

“Thankfully, members of the public helped the man off the tracks before the Tube arrived at the station, and he did not sustain any serious injuries.

“Detectives are appealing to the witnesses on the platform who assisted the man, and anyone else who may have witnessed the incident or events leading up to it, to contact them as soon as possible.”

BTP has asked anyone with information to contact the force by text on 61016 or by calling 0800 40 50 40, quoting 379 of Feb 3.