Thomas Mair, the man accused of killing British Lawmaker Jo Cox earlier this week, made his first court appearance Saturday morning after being charged with murder and several other crimes.
When asked to state his name as proceedings began at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London, Mair said, "My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain," an apparent allusion to Britain's upcoming referendum vote on European Union membership. The outburst was his only comment in court Saturday.
Cox had been a supporter of keeping Britain in the EU.
Police investigators in Cox’s county of Yorkshire in northern England are refusing to confirm or deny that the suspected assassin of the spirited 41-year-old lawmaker may have been motivated by far-right nationalist beliefs.
Several eye witnesses to the attack by 52-year-old Mair, a local man, say he shouted “Britain First” as he shot the lawmaker three times, stabbed her and then dragged the bleeding mother-of-two by the hair.
The small far-right political party, Britain First, which has campaigned for many years for the country to leave the European Union, said it was “not involved” in the assault on the pro-EU MP (member of Parliament), and its leadership condemned the attack.
But as police tried to identify the motives for the shooting, detectives appear to be focusing on two different lines of inquiry that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A Yorkshire police source confirmed to VOA that investigators are examining Mair’s alleged links to far-right groups as well as scrutinizing his mental health history.
Detectives searched Mair’s home for evidence of extremist right-wing material. The U.S.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups in America and internationally, says Mair was a “longtime supporter” of a U.S. neo-Nazi group called the National Alliance stretching back to 1999.
The Center said Mair had ordered over $620 worth of goods from the group’s printing house, National Vanguard Books, including manuals on how to make homemade weapons, from bombs to guns.
He subscribed also for at least 10 years to S.A. Patriot, a newsletter published in South Africa by a group called Springbok Club, a white supremacist group, which has defended the white apartheid regime, according to the center.
In its June newsletter the Springbok Club said: “On Thursday, 23rd June 2016 all British voters will have the opportunity to vote on the future of their country. They can vote either to remain entrapped in the artificial and retrograde European Union, or to regain their sovereign independence.”
Mair’s half-brother, Duane St Louis, told local newspapers that he had never heard his brother express any racist beliefs. “My brother has never expressed any political views, never said anything about Britain First,” he said.
But he said his brother had been struggling for years with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. “His only mental problem is OCD – he keeps cleaning himself all the time, he has had it for years. He was always washing himself, he is obsessed with his personal hygiene,” he added. The cleaning went as far as scrubbing himself with harsh, wire-wool pads.
In a 2011 interview with the local Huddersfield Examiner newspaper, Mair eluded to his mental health problems. He was being interviewed about volunteer work with disabled children and was acknowledged as having been a patient at a day center for adults with mental illness.
In the interview he explained that he felt volunteering “has done me more good than all the psychotherapy and medication in the world.” He added: “Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society, feelings of worthlessness are also common, mainly caused by long-term unemployment.”
Cox’s death – she is the first serving member of Britain’s parliament to be have been killed since Irish Republicans murdered a senior Conservative politician in 1990 – has cast a dark shadow over the acrimonious EU referendum campaign.
Both Remain and Leave camps suspended their activities within minutes of the lawmaker’s murder Thursday as a mark of respect and are not planning to resume their activities before Saturday. When they do start campaigning again they are likely to be more muted in tone ahead of voting on June 23, predict commentators.
“Hopefully, the tone of the campaign will now change,” argued Jason Beattie, the political editor of the pro-Labour Daily Mirror newspaper. “The political rhetoric has been deplorable,” said Nicholas Baines, the bishop of Leeds and a friend of the murdered politician.
British politicians on both side of the EU argument are being careful to avoid openly discussing whether Cox’s murder will have any bearing on the outcome of the Brexit vote next week, fearing anything they say may appear tawdry and prompt a backlash.
Privately, though, they suspect it may sway public opinion enough for the Remain camp to eke out a slim victory; especially if the far right, nationalist ties of Cox’s killer are perceived publicly as having been significant in shaping Mair’s actions.
Just hours before Cox’s death, top Labour politicians had started to ramp up late-in-the-campaign efforts to persuade reluctant Labour supporters, many of whom express anti-immigrant sentiments because of job fears, to vote for Britain to remain in the EU.
Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, a friend of Cox, also entered the fray, much as he did in the final days of the campaigning last year in the referendum over Scottish independence. He argued workers’ rights would be better protected inside the European bloc than out.
Remain camp officials say privately that with the Conservative vote divided, traditional Labour supporters will likely be a crucial factor in determining the referendum result. And they say Cox’s murder may prompt more working class northern voters to come out and vote to retain EU membership than would have been the case otherwise.