Comment | Lutfur Rahman Verdict: An Overview
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, April 23, 2015 13:38 - 7 Comments
Earlier today, Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman was found guilty of election offences today by the High Court. The judgment, read this morning at the Royal Courts of Justice, followed the longest election trial since the Second World War.
Charges were brought last year in an election petition by four local politicians under the Representation of the People Act 1983. They accused the Mayor and his lead agent, Clllr Alibor Choudhury, of a string of election offences including bribery, postal voting fraud, false statements about rival candidates, intimidation at polling stations and ‘spiritual injury’, (‘spiritual injury/influence’ has not been invoked in election proceedings since trials in Ireland in the 19th Century).
In the end it was not postal voter fraud or intimidation that rendered the verdict guilty, though this previously had been the allegations most covered by the press
Lutfur Rahman has been found guilty of ‘corruption’, this being, in Judge Mawrey’s words, ‘using power to promote his community’- who are not (this relates to Muslims, not just Bengalis), a ‘real minority’ in Tower Hamlets because they are so populous within the borough.
The Judge stated Rahman is guilty of bribery because he hired someone who had worked as a TV reporter to be his advisor.
The Judge found Lutfur guilty of ‘spiritual influence’ because the Chair of Tower Hamlets Mosque Committee supported Lutfur for in his bid for re-election. The most recent case law regarding ‘spiritual influence/injury’ is from 19th century Ireland courts not operating under home rule.
The judge stated he found Rahman not to be a ‘credible witness’, while Labour and Tory councillors, including Peter Golds, a close friend of John Major, were said to be ‘credible witnesses’. The Judge further said police at the polling stations could be said to be like the ‘three wise monkeys’ and that Rahman’s campaigners were not credible in their statements, that Rahman’s witnesses painted their campaigning as ‘jolly family outing’ which was responded to with laughter in the gallery.
However, the Judge then found Rahman NOT guilty of intimidation, saying that while there was definitely ‘common law intimidation’, it didn’t meet the level of proof needed. No example of intimidation was given in court bar multiple campaigners congregating on pavements.
Given that Rahman’s electoral group, Tower Hamlets First (THF), is not a party, the verdict means all THF Councillors are found to be ‘corrupt’. Cllr Alibor Choudhury must leave office immediately.
The Judge praised the petitioners in bringing the case forward, that their behaviour had been ‘exemplary’ and they had been brave to do so despite knowing they’d be portrayed as racists and islamophobes. The Judge stated the ‘real victims’ of this case were the Bengali community who had been ‘lead into a sense of victimhood’. The Judge stated Rahman has in fact ‘made a career of silencing others by accusing people of islamophobia’.
The judgement upheld the most contentious claim, which was that of ‘false statement’. This was that Lutfur Rahman or his agents falsely smeared John Biggs as a racist in order to win the election, which was claimed to be in breach of Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which forbids false statements against an opposing candidate’s personal character during a campaign period.
The invocation of S106 is precarious. S106 stipulates legally what statements can and cannot be made by people (outside of existing libel, hate speech and defamation law) and relates to free speech concerns in terms of both ethical and legal guidelines (the European Court of Human Rights position on free speech being an example of the latter.) The Judge stated that, “European law says free speech doesn’t extend to dishonesty”.
Much of this was clarified in the Woolas v Watkins election case of 2010, where the balance between protecting free speech and ensuring fair elections was clarified – Labour’s Woolas was found to have falsely accused the Liberal Democrats’ candidate of being linked to extremists in an election leaflet.
Evidence considered for this included press releases from Tower Hamlets First which did not call Biggs a racist, but did however accuse him of a ‘questionable record on race’, ‘racially-charged comments’ and cultural insensitivity. Statements made on Facebook pages supportive of Rahman – but not run by him or his team – did call Biggs a racist. Lutfur’s defence contend he was not responsible for this, and that the reach of these pages (850 and 300 ‘likes’ respectively for the main ones) was too small to impact the election result, especially compared to the far-higher profile smear stories about Rahman in the national press which he contends are untrue.
Incidents prior to the campaign period include one where Lutfur’s Cabinet Member for Resources appeared to compare Labour Cllr Jackson to a fascist, in a heated council chamber fight. This was due to Councilor Jackson, according to fellow Labour Cllr Anwar Khan, referring to Bangladeshis as ‘curry people‘.
Rahman’s previous profession was in law. The Judge has recommend Rahman be referred to a legal body that can revoke his status as a solicitor. Furthermore, Rahman has been banned from voting for five years.
Lutfur Rahman continues to deny all wrongdoing. It is expected that an appeal will be lodged. If the results stand, he will be prohibited from standing again for election.
A Tower Hamlet First statement on the verdict said the judgment “has come as a shock” and that “the Mayor strongly denies any wrongdoing and had full confidence in the justice system, and so this result has been surprising to say the least”.
“We are seeking further legal advice on the matter in relation to a judicial review,” the statement added.
Rahman’s legal costs amount to at least £250k. If the results stand, Rahman is expected to be prohibited from standing again for election.
June 12th has been touted as the date for a new election. Deputy Mayor Oli Rahman is now acting Mayor. The sub-committee of Labour NEC must decide whether John Biggs must go through selection process again for mayoral candidate, and he has declared his intention, smiling to cameras outside the Royal Courts of Justice after today’s verdict.
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