Questions over how suspect in chemical attack was granted asylum after sex offence

Police urged the suspect to 'do the right thing and hand yourself in' after he fled the scene of a 'corrosive substance' attack that left nine people, including two children, in hospital.

Words by Westminster Producer, Elisa Menendez

The government has come under pressure to explain how a refugee suspected of launching a chemical substance attack on a mother and her children was granted asylum after being convicted of a sex offence.

Police are hunting Abdul Ezedi, 35, after a mother was left with potentially life-changing injuries following the corrosive alkaline substance attack in Clapham on Wednesday evening.

A 31-year-old woman, believed to be known to Ezedi, was with her daughters - aged three and eight - at the time when they were attacked. The mother remains in hospital while her daughters have been discharged.

Four others - some of whom rushed to help the victims - were also injured, as well as five police officers.

It is believed Ezedi, from Afghanistan, travelled to the UK on a lorry in 2016. But it is understood his asylum claims were rejected twice by the Home Office.

In 2018, Ezedi, from the Newcastle area, was convicted of a sex offence at Newcastle Crown Court.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed he was sentenced on January 9 of that year after pleading guilty to one charge of sexual assault and one of exposure.

Ezedi avoided jail and was handed a suspended sentence. He was put on the Sex Offenders Register for 10 years.

He later challenged the Home Office's two refusals and was granted asylum by a judge after he argued he had converted to Christianity with a priest supporting his claim, ITV News understands.

Tory MPs are now piling the pressure on the government to answer questions over its asylum system, while former immigration minister Robert Jenrick called on Home Secretary James Cleverly to carry out a “detailed review” of how Ezedi was allowed to remain in the UK.

Others have argued the main issue is not around Ezedi's asylum status but the wider criminal justice system, and that the incident raises more pressing questions about how violence against women and girls is handled.

'It is very concerning to hear about his previous sexual offence and how seriously that was taken... That's something that we are seeing right across society,' Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy told ITV News

Criminal convictions, religious persecution and the asylum process

Under the Home Office rules at the time of Ezedi's application, claimants who had a sentence of two years or more were ineligible for asylum. In 2022, the threshold was lowered to 12 months.

However, many who work with asylum seekers point out a person can still face persecution and be at risk in their native country even if they have a UK criminal conviction.

It is understood Ezedi challenged the Home Office’s two rejections by successfully lodging an appeal with the First-tier Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), which is believed to have been granted by a judge in late 2020 after he said he had converted to Christianity.

Currently, there does not appear to be a limit on the amount of times a person seeking asylum may apply after rejection.

Under Home Office guidelines, a refugee can claim asylum in the UK on the basis of religious persecution in their native country. The claimant must have failed to get protection from authorities in their home country.

Suspect Abdul Ezedi is still on the run. Credit: The Metropolitan Police

Jacqueline McKenzie, partner and head of immigration and asylum law at firm Leigh Day, highlighted that the timing of Ezedi’s claim “is pretty important”, due to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.

“We know the Taliban came to power, we know that they’re very serious about their blasphemy laws, and that the death penalty is applicable for people who convert from Islam to Christianity or other religions," she told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.

“And this man, if he was able to convince the secretary of state that his conversion was genuine, would have been offered protection because he would possibly face persecution back in Afghanistan under the Taliban.”

Ms McKenzie added that someone’s criminal past can be relevant but if they are believed not to pose an ongoing threat to security, they might be granted asylum.

“The secretary of state can also look at crimes committed outside of the UK and inside of the UK, if the person poses a threat to society," she added.

“And it seems clear – and we don’t know enough, but it seems clear – that whoever made the decision to grant this man asylum felt that he didn’t pose an ongoing threat to security and that may have been based on probation reports, all sorts of things, or expert evidence etc. So it is very, very difficult, because we just don’t have enough information.”

The Home Office can apply to the Upper Tribunal to appeal against such rulings. But it is so far unclear whether the department did apply to appeal Ezedi's case.

Ms McKenzie added that she has dealt with cases where people have been “absolutely genuine” about their conversion to Christianity.

It is not yet known which Christian denomination the person who reportedly assisted Ezedi's appeal was from. The Church of England said it was not currently aware of any links to its churches.

According to Church of England guidance, conversion to Christianity after a previous refusal can be the basis of a fresh claim, the guidance said.

It adds that a clergy can “act as their support, and help with things they cannot do” if someone’s asylum claim is refused, adding that "convincing evidence will be required".

Calls for Home Office review

The details of the case have renewed calls from some Tory MPs for serious reform of the asylum system, while others have argued laws around violence against women and girls should be the focus of the debate.

Downing Street on Friday did not say whether the Home Office would heed calls for a review.

Rishi Sunak's official spokesperson declined to comment on Ezedi's immigration status during a live police investigation but said that, more broadly, “the PM doesn’t think that foreign criminals should be able to stay in the country, putting the public at risk”.

Backbench Tory MPs from the right of the party, who have long demanded a more hard-line stance on illegal migration, were quick to point to the incident as evidence of the need to reform the asylum system.

Neil O'Brien said 'we absolutely need to change the law and completely reboot the asylum system'

Tory MP Neil O'Brien told ITV News: "This is yet another example of the incredibly serious problems in the asylum system where people who fail multiple times commit serious criminal offences in the UK and can’t be deported because of a system that is granting asylum to too many people that shouldn’t be getting it."

He argued that "it’s not right and it’s not fair" that the system is "allowing increasingly large numbers of dangerous people to be on our streets because of excessive legal obstacles that have been placed around people that shouldn’t be here".

"If you want to get the humanitarian protection of the UK you have a responsibility to not commit serious criminal offences here," he added.

Facing questions about the case, Children’s Minister David Johnston said: "We have a plan to end the asylum merry-go-round that enables people to continuously apply having been rejected - that's what our safety of Rwanda plan is all about."

The Home Office said it would be inappropriate to comment on a suspect’s immigration status during a live police investigation.

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