Saturday, December 01, 2007

Labour - Witness nobbling

The Director of Public Prosecutions is to examine allegations of witness-nobbling in a trial where Labour is accused of corruptly winning an election.

One witness has gone into hiding, and another told a judge his family was in danger after being warned against giving evidence. A Liberal Democrat activist stayed away from the trial when his car was torched, the election court heard.

Muhammad Afzal, a former chairman of the National Association of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority Councillors, denies a complaint that he spread lies about an opponent to win election in May. His victory in Aston bucked the trend in which Labour lost its position as Birmingham’s largest party after 24 years. An election commissioner, sitting alone to judge the petition, is being asked to overthrow the result. Mr Afzal was previously cleared on appeal of postal vote-rigging in the city’s 2004 elections which, a judge said, “would disgrace a banana republic”. In the latest trial a witness appeared to lose his voice after he saw two relatives arrive while he gave evidence. One of the cousins had come to his house to warn him against testifying against Mr Afzal, he told the hearing. The other, Tahir Ali, is a Labour councillor. The pair arrived during a break in Mukhtar Ahmed’s evidence.

Graham Brodie, counsel for the defeated Lib Dem candidate, forced Mr Ahmed to name the relatives watching his evidence. From the witness box, Mr Ahmed pleaded hoarsely: “I don’t want to give names because I don’t want to put my family in danger.” But the barrister insisted that he comply, being under oath. After identifying them, Mr Ahmed’s voice faltered and he had to be encouraged by the commissioner, Timothy Straker, QC, to speak up.

Mr Ali told The Times it was nonsense to suggest his presence might have intimidated his cousin; he had attended several sessions of the hearing.

After Mr Ahmed left the box, the commissioner announced that he would order the DPP to attend the rest of the trial. “If anything untoward is discovered to have happened, steps will require to be taken,” he said.

Another potential witness, Abdul Azad, appeared to be no longer in Birmingham, the judge was told.

The Times understands that Mr Azad had made allegations against Labour during an investigation for Newsnight. That interview was never broadcast after the Labour Party raised objections, having seen a transcript.

Mr Afzal had had to stand down as a councillor because his victory in 2004 was due to vote-rigging, although he was cleared of any personal responsibility. The current petition claims he won back his seat this year because supporters spread lies that the Lib Dem candidate had been held for postal vote fraud.

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