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Monday, November 29, 2010

Prisoners’ right to vote: Ministry monitoring UK developments

Prisoners’ right to vote: Ministry monitoring UK developments

by Scott Grech

The Justice and Home Affairs Ministry, which is headed by Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, said when contacted that “it is closely following developments in the UK” when asked whether it might look at the possibility of granting Maltese prisoners the right to vote.

In a reply to a parliamentary question by PN MP Ċensu Galea last October, Dr Mifsud Bonnici told parliament that there are 589 prisoners at the Corradino Correctional Facility, of whom 346 are Maltese and 243 are foreigners.

Earlier this month, it was reported by British media that prisoners in the UK are to get the right to vote after ministers conceded defeat in a long-running legal battle with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and accepted that current laws must be changed.

Asked whether the ministry will grant all prisoners the right to vote, the ministry replied: “It has to be noted, however, that the ECHR has not yet ruled that all prisoners should be given voting rights. In view of this, the ministry is in the process of preparing a position on this matter and any further developments will be unveiled in the future”.

A constitutional amendment needing a two thirds majority would be needed if parliament is to pave the way for prisoners to vote and the possibility on whether to grant prisoners this right was debated in a parliamentary debate last March.

The way things stand at the moment in Malta, prisoners serving a prison term longer than one year are not allowed to vote. In recent times, amendments were enacted so as to allow citizens serving a suspended sentence the right to vote.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to be “exasperated and furious” at having to bring to an end the ban on prisoner voting, which the UK has upheld for 140 years, following the ECHR ruling, which also gave Britain’s coalition government six months to amend its current laws.

In their ruling, judges said it was a “cause for regret” that for over five years since the Hirst ruling, no amending measures had been brought forward by the UK government, and ordered the government to fulfil its obligations to secure the right for other prisoners to vote in compliance with the judgment.

However, Britain is expected to retain the ban for murderers and others serving life sentences, while it is also looking at giving judges the responsibility of deciding which criminals should be allowed to vote when they are sentenced.

Britain’s long running legal battle with the ECHR was instigated after convicted killer John Hirst challenged the view that prisoners should automatically be denied the right to vote after they are sentenced.

Prisoner Hirst protested and took the case to the ECHR in March 2004, which in turn ruled that the British government was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

UK Ministers appealed to the European Court’s grand chamber, but in October 2005 it upheld the ruling and it was only on 2 November this year that ministers considered defeat in their battle against the ECHR.

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