London: The two men who hacked to death a young soldier in Woolwich in south London last year have been sentenced to life in prison.
One of them will die in jail, after a judge set the highest possible prison term: whole of life. And the other will be an old man before he can possibly be released.
Michael Adebolajo, 29, and Michael Adebowale, 22, hit Lee Rigby with a car and then attacked him with large knives, nearly decapitating him with a meat cleaver.
Justice Sweeney said the pair “went far beyond what was needed to murder him”, resulting in a “bloodbath”. “You both gloried in what you had done,” he said.
The pair were not in the courtroom to hear their sentence after a commotion in the dock. Adebolajo started shouting ‘‘Allahu akbar’’ (God is greatest) and Adebowale called out ‘‘that’s a lie’’ as the judge told them their extremist views were "a betrayal of Islam". They then scuffled with eight guards before being carried down to the holding cells.
Rigby's family sobbed during the commotion, the BBC reported, and the judge later apologised to them for "what happened in the dock".
Justice Sweeney said the pair’s behaviour on the Woolwich streets was ‘‘sickening and pitiless’’. The cold-blooded, broad-daylight attack on the off-duty Fusilier in May was intended as an act of terrorism and an act of revenge for attacks on Muslims overseas. It made headlines around the world as the blood-stained attackers stayed at the scene of the crime, posing for photographs and talking to onlookers.
Justice Sweeney said the crime was a “betrayal of Islam” with terrorist connections, and was of “exceptionally high” seriousness. He sentenced Adebolajo to a whole-life term, as the attack’s ringleader, and Adebowale to a minimum of 45 years' prison, as an enthusiastic follower.
They were sentenced at the Old Bailey on Wednesday afternoon. They were found guilty in December, but the judge was waiting for a separate decision about the validity of whole-life sentences before passing sentence. Under British law, the “most heinous cases” of murder can attract whole-of-life sentences, under which the offenders will die in jail.
Lee Rigby’s family arrived together at the Old Bailey for the sentencing, wearing identical T-shirts with his photograph and the slogan “Justice for Lee Rigby”.
The case has inflamed racial tensions. Far-right British National Party supporters placed gallows outside the Old Bailey. Members of the BNP and the far-right English Defence League demonstrated outside the court, as they did in South London on the night after the murder. They waved flags and some called for the death sentence.
Inside, the court heard victim impact statements from Rigby’s family. His estranged wife Rebecca, mother of their three-year-old son Jack, said that after the murder “I felt like I didn’t want to go on".
“My son will grow up and see images of his dad that no son should have to endure, and there’s nothing I can do to change this,” she said.
Rigby’s stepfather Ian said “all [Lee] was doing was walking through London. You take it all in but you can’t comprehend it.”
Justice Sweeney read the sentence in the absence of the defendants, after they started shouting and struggling with security guards in the dock when the sentencing began.
At trial last year Adebowale did not offer a defence, while Adebolajo said he was a soldier “obeying the command of Allah”.
He said they targeted Rigby because he wore a Help for Heroes top and carried a camouflage bag.
The jury unanimously found them guilty of murder, but cleared them of attempting to murder a police officer after the attack on Rigby.
When police arrived at the crime scene Adebolajo sprinted at armed officers with a knife, but was shot down by an officer. The men said they had wanted police to shoot them dead so they could “achieve martyrdom”.
Last week the UK Court of Appeal ruled that criminals could be locked up until they die, released only in exceptional circumstances. The government had argued that in the most serious offences, a life sentence should be for life.
“Our courts should be able to send the most brutal murderers to jail for the rest of their lives,” said Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
The European Court of Human Rights found last year that all convictions should included the possibility of release, and life sentences should be reviewed after 25 years.
Both defence barristers argued at the Old Bailey on Wednesday that a whole-of-life sentence was not appropriate in this case, as it was a one-off act with one victim. Adebowale’s lawyer said a sentence with a minimum term was the most appropriate.
Adebolajo’s lawyer said the murder was a crime that shocked the nation, but a whole-life term could not be justified. He said an indeterminate sentence would create a martyr, and his client was not so depraved or wicked as to be incapable of redemption.
Rigby’s family have welcomed the punishment, saying justice has been served and no lesser sentence would have been sufficient. Outside court after the sentences were passed down, a police liaison officer read a short statement on behalf of the family.
“The Rigby family welcomes the whole-life and significant sentences that have been passed down on Lee’s killers,” the statement said. “We feel that no other sentence would have been acceptable and we would like to thank the judge and the courts for handing down what we believe to be the right prison terms.
"We would also like to thank everyone who has supported us in the last nine months. It has brought us a lot of comfort and we feel satisfied that justice has been served for Lee."
The Metropolitan Police's assistant commissioner Cressida Dick said: "Today's sentence reflects the true horror of their actions in taking this young man's life in such a barbaric way . . . Our thoughts remain with Lee's loved ones, who have shown dignity and strength throughout the judicial process."
Sue Hemming, head of special crime and counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, said the soldier's family had found the whole court process distressing.
“Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale revelled in one of the most appalling terrorist murders I have seen whilst head of counter-terrorism at the CPS,” she said.
“Not only was the attack brutal and calculated, it was also designed to advance extremist views. As a solider, Fusilier Lee Rigby was targeted in a clear act of revenge, deliberately carried out in full view of members of the public for maximum impact.”