The Lutfur Rahman verdict – why the “judge” got it wrong

PHD student Jennifer Izaakson, who attended the Lutfur Rahman court hearing in London, forensically dissects the verdict and argues that a huge miscarriage of justice has just taken place.

37,000 people voted for Lutfur Rahman in a record turnout. He has now been deposed – not by an election, not by arrest and not by a jury trial, but by four local politicians who took him to court.

Sitting in judgment was one man only – not a qualified judge, only a barrister (assumed by the media and even myself to be a judge) – who has demonstrated previously a peculiar interest in Muslims and elections. This man found Lutfur Rahman guilty of multiple offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

This article goes over what they were.

The two hundred page judgment is available for all to read. Pay special attention to the mention of apostasy. It is mentioned how apostasy “is treated with great seriousness.” It continues: “it would be wrong, therefore, to treat Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community by the standards of a secular and largely agnostic metropolitan elite.”

There we are. Law is, explicitly, to be applied differently to Muslims than as it applied to the “agnostic metropolitan elite,” whoever they are (is this the bankers in East London?).

Spiritual injury

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The pieces of evidence presented here were limited. One was a letter supporting Lutfur Rahman written by imams, and another was a speech made by an imam at a wedding (where Lutfur’s recollection of the event conflicted with a recording of it.) Neither in themselves fulfilled the spirit of the “spiritual injury” offence, which is for a religious figure to claim that it is sinful to vote for one candidate or another.

At no point has anything other than hearsay evidence been presented for this.

Rahman's nemesis John Biggs of Labour
Rahman’s nemesis John Biggs of Labour

In court one particular afternoon I watched as five Muslim witnesses were repeatedly asked, “did you say it was haram to not vote for brother Lutfur?”, as if these people were religious scholars in any position to do so. Within Islam there is a debate about whether to vote at all in elections, not about which candidate is the godly choice! To make such a claim, to decide God’s will and choose a specific man above another as more fated by God, I imagine, though I’m no sheik, would be sacrilegious.

The judge chose to interpret that the “real meaning” of the imams’ letters was to threaten spiritual injury, despite denying elsewhere, when it came to Lutfur’s claims about racism, that coded messages usually existed in anything “but the minds” of those making allegations.

The charges are backed by some woeful mischaracterisations. One, that to pray for an outcome is the same as to claim that outcome is religiously significant. (A Christian might pray for a friend to recover from an illness – that does not mean he believes to support said recovery is a religious duty.) Two, that there is “no difference” between 1880s Irish Catholics and 2010s British Muslims, and Tower Hamlets Muslims are dim enough to simply do as their imam tells them.

Postal voting fraud (individual)

It is claimed that a few Tower Hamlets First candidates registered at false addresses. This was apparently to gain an extra vote for their own use.

It seems unlikely that even candidates minded to commit fraud would go to such great lengths and expose themselves to criminal charges for the sake of about three votes in ninety thousand. The evidence for these claims was the testimony of Andrew Gilligan, a right-wing Telegraph journalist linked to cronyism claims that has hounded Lutfur for years.

Gilligan simply stated that two Tower Hamlets councilors had two addresses. To be clear: it was found that Rahman was guilty of this claim due to it simply being thought that Gilligan’s testimony was “credible” (believable), without any proof. All that was believed is that two councilors had two addresses and then Gilligan’s assumption they therefore must’ve voted twice was agreed with.

Postal voting fraud (mass organisation)

The charge of mass organised postal vote fraud was perhaps the most serious of the claims against Lutfur and the media’s favourite charge. It was not upheld.

Intimidation at polling stations

The claims of intimidation at polling stations was not upheld. It seems odd that with a secret ballot one would intimidate voters on their way in when that would likely produce the opposite effect. The judgment presents evidence of campaigners talking to voters in the Bengali language as evidence of misconduct.

While there certainly were exuberant groups of both Labour and Tower Hamlets First supporters at polling stations, dozens of police statements (every polling station had its own PC) confirmed general good conduct with a few isolated complaints.

Bribery (grants)

The judgment accuses Lutfur of directing funds at the Bangladeshi community to procure votes, and abusing process to do so.

The main piece of evidence for this is the PricewaterhouseCoopers audit report, itself declared under highly political circumstances. The report, while finding apparent poor practice, finds no evidence of fraud or corruption. It finds no evidence of bias in grant distribution.

The inspectors appointed by central government have since found that of 327 organisations funded by council grants, there are only concerns with eighteen. This was simply about there being many in the West of the borough.

The argument that funds were concentrated in the west of the borough makes more sense with the context that most voluntary organisations have their office addresses in that area – it does not mean they work there.

There is also an argument that Lutfur and his councillors overrode officer/staff recommendations to allocate funds. They did – as is the right of elected officials versus unelected bureaucrats.

Eric Pickles might prefer a council of technocrats to instruct, but that isn’t actually how democracy is meant to work.

Bribery (media)

The court judgment simultaneously says that the Bengali local press were naturally supportive of Lutfur, and that he bribed them to be so. Both statements cannot surely hold.

Ofcom did find against Bengali media organisations over partisan coverage. That is an example of bad editorial practice, but no more so than the often dishonestly partisan coverage produced by mainstream press organisations constantly, and their cosy relationships with Labour and Tory politicians.

The BBC Panorama on Lutfur released before the election is an example of gross media bias and yet, this was not of concern to the petitioners. The charge here was essentially “Lutfur hired an adviser to work with the Bengali press to promote his work as a politician.” This is called public relations. Hardly illegal, and it would be interesting to see what a police prosecution made of these charges.

All mainstream political parties employ public relations staff to advise them and help them win elections.

False statements

It is claimed by the judgment that Lutfur falsely smeared his Labour opponent John Biggs as a racist.

This is again a collection of hearsay evidence backed by a few pieces of evidence – a press release accusing Biggs of a “questionable record” on race, and another accusing him of being “racially insensitive.”

These releases relate to, respectively, a memo accusing him of racism in the middle of highly-charged race rows in the 1990s, and his claim on the Sunday Politics show that the problem with Lutfur’s cabinet was that they were “all Bangladeshi.” (Ironically, this was because Biggs had refused to permit his councillors to work with Lutfur in a unity cabinet).

Tower Hamlets
Tower Hamlets

At no point did Lutfur’s election material accuse Biggs of racism, though there was a row in the Council where Cllr Alibor Choudhry made an inappropriate half-joke about Biggs being a fascist after one of Biggs’ councillors had allegedly called the Bengali community “curry people.” This was however outside the election period, where the rules on false statements on personal character do not apply.

Racism does seem to be at the heart of the case. Religion, culture, language, accusations of racism, accusations of accusations of racism appear throughout. In court, every Muslim witnesses I saw cross-examined was asked, “did you give curry out to voters?” which made something of a surreal spectacle.

One example of institutional racism on part of Labour under Biggs follows:

In 1993 Masthouse Terrace, a new housing development, opened. The BNP claimed immigrants were getting priority; the basis of a vicious scare campaign.

Biggs was there campaigning against the BNP so knows the situation and how it stoked tensions. Yet in 2013 his party put out a press release saying the Mayor was targeting “decent homes work” (renovations, such as new kitchens and bathrooms etc) at his supporters (in three heavily Bangladeshi wards), while knowing full well that the decent homes work was to be rolled out over five years to regenerate all the borough’s council homes (Labour helped plan it.)

It would be absurd to suggest that Labour could not have guessed exactly the rumors that would spread.

Predictably, the English Defence League (EDL) picked up and ran with these housing claims prior to their next rampage through Tower Hamlets.


Allegations of “treating” were not upheld. I was wondering where my free tango can was (another repeated court accusation).

Further points on the judgment

– It sidelines neutral evidence and is based on accepting rumour, hearsay and the claims of those with vested interest as fact.

– It betrays alarming levels of insensitivity – those in a borough with a history of racial tensions are accused of “seeing racism in everything.” Is this a surprise when Labour and Tory councillors make claims that are then picked up by mainstream columnists who say that corruption is an inherent feature of being Bangladeshi, or that Lutfur is part of a “zealously religious, nasty, feudal” culture that’s been “imported,” even though Lutfur Rahman grew up in UK and was called a “pretty secular guy” by his rival John Biggs in court?

Ex mayor Luftur Rahman
Ex mayor Luftur Rahman

Whilst it’s not racist to criticise Lutfur, most of the criticism of him is overlaid with racism. The Helal Abbas dossier (a 2009 document accusing Rahman of fixing democratic procedures) that accused Rahman of “Islamism” (this is a man who has been photographed embracing scantily clad drag queens) is presented in the judgment. All claims in it are unsubstantiated. – The judgment claims that Bengalis “aren’t a real minority.” – The judgment ridicules demonstrations against the EDL.

– The judgment sets a precedent for criminal action against anyone who dares call out what they feel to be discrimination during an election.

– The judgment uses examples of sheer incompetence on part of Rahman’s team, for example the haphazard and last-minute assembling of the Tower Hamlets First party, as evidence against him. Surely an operation that haphazard could not conduct “industrial scale fraud” if it tried? The judgement is scathing when it can be, regardless of how contradictory that sets it up to also be.

Finally, the judgment admits that if suspect ballots were cast they probably numbered less than a hundred, and that the allegations of ballot fraud against Lutfur in 2010 that started this whole affair were disgraceful and he was right to appeal against them.

The new election is set for July 11th. The fight back against the #TowerHamletsCoup, however, starts now.

Please sign and share this petition and join us against real corruption:

Jennifer Izaakson is a Green Party member and PhD student at a London university. She writes for the Huffington Post and Tweets @izaakson.

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