Alice Gross missing: Police search is biggest since 7/7


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Police have said that they had launched the biggest search operation in London since the 7/7 terror attacks in an effort to find missing teenager Alice Gross, as concern mounted that the prime suspect’s previous conviction for murder in Latvia was missed by UK authorities.

Arnis Zalkalns, who was convicted of stabbing and bludgeoning his wife to death in Latvia in 1998, was last seen on 3 September, six days after Alice went missing. Mr Zalkalns, who served seven years in prison, came to the UK in 2007 and was arrested five years ago over an allegation of indecent assault.

Alice, 14, was last seen on 28 August. About 600 police officers from seven different forces have been involved in the search operation, which has so far covered 25 square kilometres of land and 5.5 kilometres of canals and rivers.

“This is the largest deployment of search assets mobilised by the Met in support of an ongoing investigation since 7/7,” Scotland Yard said. Detective Superintendent Carl Mehta added: “We will not stop our hunt for Alice.”

Mr Zalkalns, 41, was named by police as a suspect in Alice’s disappearance on Thursday. Police said he had not used his bank account or his mobile phone since he went missing. It is not known if the Home Office was aware of the builder’s murder conviction when he entered the country, but it does have the power to prevent such serious criminals from entering the UK. Police have said they did not know about the conviction when he was arrested in 2009.

The missed opportunity to prevent Mr Zalkalns from entering the UK in the first place and the potential for similar cases in the future is the subject of concern among politicians. Next month, Parliament will vote on the UK’s involvement in  EU-wide criminal justice measures, including a computerised system for sharing previous convictions called Ecris. It was set up in 2012 to improve information sharing because “criminals were often able to escape their past simply by moving between EU countries” by using freedom of movement, according to the Ecris website.

However, in the same year, the UK government signalled its intention to opt out of the system, although it has recently decided that it does want the Britain to be involved.

Perhaps as a consequence of the Government’s statement that it would opt out of Ecris, British police seem to have only limited access to the system. A senior detective, speaking off the record, said he was “aware of the theory” that officers could use Ecris to find out about EU citizens’ previous convictions quickly, but said that in practice it could take months. A source close to the UK version of Ecris said it had “the potential to share information extremely quickly and is getting better all the time”.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, blamed Eurosceptic MPs for seeking to limit co-operation between EU states on fighting crime. He said non-EU citizens’ previous convictions would be highlighted when they applied for a visa, but EU nationals could enter the country “unchecked” because border officials were not able to immediately find out if they had a criminal past. Mr Vaz said it was “totally unacceptable that we should not know about previous convictions of serious and dangerous criminals who arrive in this country from inside the EU”.

“There must be loads of people with criminal convictions in the UK and we have absolutely no idea about it,” he said. “There should be no excuse for the authorities in this country not to know about the criminal convictions of citizens of the EU who enter the UK.”

He said Eurosceptics opposed to Britain’s involvement in the EU should realise that some co-operation was necessary. “Those who want Britain to come out of Europe and believe the only way to do this in the meantime is to grab any powers of this kind should reflect carefully on what they have done,” Mr Vaz said.