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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Election row in Britain over prisoners barred from voting

Election row in Britain over prisoners barred from voting

Posted: 29 April 2010 1054 hrs

HULL, England - "The whole thing stinks". John Hirst, who spent 25 years in jail for an axe killing, says Britain is wrongly denying prisoners a vote in May's general election -- and a top European court agrees.

Hirst is sitting in his dirty, dog hair-strewn house in Hull, northeast England, explaining his disgust at the government's failure to implement a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in a landmark case he brought.

"This isn't a balancing exercise between the victims' rights and the prisoners' right to vote," he told AFP, puffing on a roll-up cigarette.

"It's the individual versus the state, not whether someone has committed an offence and left a victim, or say in my case where I killed someone."

He and other campaigners argue that British politicians -- tainted by a recent scandal over lavish expense claims by members of parliament (MPs) -- do not want to risk losing votes by addressing the sensitive issue.

"It's a bit rich these people turning around and saying prisoners have lost their moral authority when MPs are fiddling the expenses," added Hirst -- who was put behind bars in 1980 for killing his landlady -- with a high cackle.

Around 70,000 sentenced prisoners will be denied the vote in Britain's May 6 general election, despite the ECHR ruling in Hirst's case -- which concluded in 2005 -- that the blanket ban breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe voiced "serious concern" in March that the ECHR ruling would not be implemented before the closely-fought poll and "strongly urged" the government to address the situation.

Britain's rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has spoken out against the blanket ban, as have several members of Britain's unelected upper chamber the House of Lords.

This month, the former chief inspector of prisons David Ramsbotham said it was a "wholly unnecessary blot" on Britain's image, while Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a retired senior judge, said the situation was "a disgrace".

The Prison Reform Trust, a charity campaigning against the ban, says Britain is one of only a limited number of European countries including Romania and Estonia which automatically strip sentenced prisoners of the vote.

In other European states like France, the loss of voting rights can be imposed as an additional punishment.

The government insists it is addressing the issue. Following the ECHR ruling, it set up a consultation in 2006 which has now closed.

"It remains the government's view that the right to vote goes to the essence of the offender's relationship with democratic society and the removal of the right to vote in the case of some convicted prisoners can be a proportionate and proper response," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice.

He added that officials were now analysing responses to the consultation and that "the issue of voting rights for prisoners is one that the government takes very seriously".

The situation has barely featured in the general election campaign, in which Prime Minister Gordon Brown's ruling Labour is trailing David Cameron's Conservatives and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats in opinion polls.

But when asked about the issue, the Liberal Democrats said there has been an "unacceptable delay" in the government's response to the Hirst case.

"We would not enfranchise all prisoners but we have proposed giving judges the right to decide whether the person they are sentencing should be denied the right to vote or not," a spokesman said.

The Conservatives went further -- a spokeswoman told AFP they "don't think there's a public appetite for prisoners to get the vote".

They believe that the government misinterpreted the court ruling and want to hold a free vote in parliament to determine whether British prisoners should be allowed to vote or not.

- AFP/ir

1 comment:

Charles Cowling said...

Puffing and cackling but at least not shuffling. Bloody hell, John! Why the need to caricature you (let alone define you by what you once did years and years ago)? Tcha!