HELSINKI (Reuters) - A teenage Moroccan asylum seeker who admitted on Tuesday that he had killed two women and injured eight other people in a knife attack in the Finnish town of Turku had had his application for asylum rejected before the attack, authorities said.
But though he confessed to the killings in a closed-door court hearing, 18-year-old Abderrahman Mechkah did not admit any terrorist motive, lawyer Kaarle Gummerus said.
“(My client) admits manslaughter and injuries ... But what the investigator has brought up this far may not be enough to classify this as a terrorist crime,” Gummerus told Reuters.
Mechkah, who had been living in a Red Cross immigrant reception center in Turku since coming to Finland in spring 2016, had been appealing against the result of his asylum application at the time of the knife attack last Friday.
“He has received the result of his asylum application and he has appealed it. He is still in the (asylum) process,” said a spokeswoman from the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation.
Though she would not say directly what the initial outcome of his application had been, the spokeswoman’s form of words indicated it had not been successful.
Applications for asylum of at least two of three other suspects who had been arrested were also being processed, the Red Cross said.
The drama of the attack on the main market place of the coastal city with the apparent involvement of asylum-seekers in Finland’s first suspected terrorism related incident has led to a rethink by the government to tighten up asylum procedure.
Mechkah appeared in court via video link from hospital. He was shot in the leg by police following the stabbings in the main market place in Turku, on Finland’s southwest coast, 160 km (100 miles) from Helsinki. He covered his head with a blanket.
The court ordered Mechkah, who has yet to be charged with any offense, and three other Moroccan men to be detained in prison pending trial.
A fifth Moroccan, who had been under arrest since Friday, was released, the court said.
Investigators have not made clear what role the three other Moroccans, who deny involvement in the attack, are suspected of playing.
One of them, 18-year old Ilyas Berrouh, was refused a residence permit in Sweden twice in 2013, authorities said. He was also refused when he made a third application under an alias, a Swedish migration official told Reuters.
Police have issued an international arrest warrant for a fifth Moroccan national. Europol said it was assisting in the investigation.
Gummerus, the lawyer, said the investigation was still at an early stage and it was impossible to “take a final stance at the moment” on the issue of whether the stabbings were terrorism-related.
Mechkah arrived in Germany in 2015 but had not made any application for asylum there.
News agency DPA reported he had used several false identities in the country and left without notifying authorities. On one occasion he was charged with causing bodily harm, the agency added.
DPA also reported that at least two of the other suspects had been in Germany. One had five false identities, while an arrest warrant had been issued for another, who was suspected of carrying out theft in Hamburg, it said.
People who knew Mechkah told Reuters he looked depressed and angry. Police had said he had clearly targeted women in the Aug. 18 attack.
Politicians meanwhile signaled that Finland, a Nordic country boasting one of the lowest levels of crime, should change its immigration-related policies.
Finance minister Petteri Orpo said the government should consider establishing better-controlled “return centers” in order to monitor more closely those who had been denied asylum.
“For some, it is a critical situation when they get a negative decision. It may increase risks, and this has to be assessed now,” Orpo told Verkkouutiset news site.
Prime Minister Juha Sipila called on Monday for political unity to fast-track already planned legislation giving authorities new powers to monitor citizens online.
In 2016, 155 Moroccans applied for asylum in Finland. Only 20 were granted.
Additional reporting by Tuomas Forsell in Helsinki and Thomas Escritt in Berlin,; Editing by Richard Balmforth