Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Councillor ‘cheated his way back into seat’

A leading Asian councillor cheated his way back on to Britain’s biggest local council by spreading untrue election-day rumours that an opponent had been arrested for fraud, a court was told yesterday.

Muhammad Afzal, who was previously ousted from Birmingham council because of a vote-rigging scandal, bucked the trend in the local elections held in May to snatch a seat for Labour as fellow candidates were culled across the city.

Evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the West Midlands Region of the Labour Party will be produced as part of a petition requesting that the poll result should be quashed, the hearing was told.

Election courts have been rare since the “rotten boroughs” in the early days of universal male suffrage in the 19th century. But the second such tribunal in three years to be convened in Birmingham met yesterday in a crowded courtroom under a new commissioner, Timothy Straker, QC.

Mr Afzal won his seat in inner-city Aston ward with 666 votes more than his nearest rival, a Respect councillor. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Saeed Aehmed, who came a close third, is bringing the petition and is demanding that the result should be overturned.

The legitimacy of any democracy relies entirely on the open and fair operation of the electoral process,” Graham Brodie, for Mr Aehmed, said yesterday. “Mr Afzal’s campaign was conducted illegally. It involved widespread misinformation concerning the personal character and conduct of a rival candidate,” he added.

False statements of facts about rivals are illegal under the Representation of the People Act.

Mr Afzal, a former chairman of the National Association of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Councillors and a Birmingham councillor since 1982, had his reelection to the council in 2004 overturned because of widespread corruption.

Richard Mawrey, QC, then election commissioner, had accused Labour of organising city-wide postal vote fraud “that would disgrace a banana republic” to win the election, in spite of Muslim anger over the invasion of Iraq. Mr Afzal was later cleared by the Court of Appeal of personal responsibility for corrupt and illegal practices.

Mr Brodie said that on this year’s election day,Mr Afzal’s supporters told voters that the Lib Dem candidate had been arrested for fraud. Loudspeakers on cars in Aston blared out the rumour in Urdu and Bengali.

Kenneth Jeffers, a resident, said that he had felt “shocked, disappointed and let down” when he read in a Labour newsletter that Mr Aehmed had been suspected of disability grant fraud.

Mr Brodie said: “None of it was true. [Mr Aehmed] has never been arrested for fraud of any sort, nor has he ever been involved with any fraud concerning disability grants.”

Noman Kamal, a Lib Dem canvasser, told the court that he had heard Labour supporters spreading the lies to voters at a polling station.

Gavin Millar, QC, for Mr Afzal, accused Mr Kamal, whose family comes from the same village in Pakistan as Mr Aehmed’s, of telling untruths.

Mr Afzal, who is regarded as the most powerful man in Birmingham Asian politics, sits on the council’s overview and scrutiny committee. His victory this May came in spite of a sharp swing against Labour in the city when the party was overtaken as Birmingham’s largest by the Conservatives for the first time in 24 years.

The hearing continues.


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