Britain defies European court over prisoner voting rights

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Britain was on a collision course with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Friday after lawmakers overwhelmingly backed a parliamentary motion to continue denying prisoners the right to vote.

The House of Commons voted late Thursday by 234 to 22 in favour of the motion, in defiance of an ECHR ruling in 2005 which said a blanket ban on voting rights was discriminatory.

Under government proposals unveiled in December, 28,000 inmates serving sentences of fewer than four years would be given the vote.

Ministers will now have to draw up a compromise proposal.

Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his personal opposition to giving prisoners the vote, but his coalition government fears compensation claims if it maintains the blanket ban.

The cross-party motion was tabled by former British justice minister and foreign minister Jack Straw of the opposition Labour party and David Davis, a senior member of the ruling Conservatives.

Davis hailed the result as "brilliant", adding: "The ball is now in the government's court to go back to the ECHR and tell them that they cannot supplant the role of parliament."

He said convicted prisoners should not be allowed to vote because they had "broken their contract with society".

Cameron allowed Conservative backbenchers to have a free vote on the issue, and speaking on a visit to a factory Thursday he said he did not see why Britain must change its policy.

"But I'm the prime minister, we're in a situation where the courts are telling us we are going to be fined unless we change this," he said.

"I find it thoroughly unsatisfactory. In my view, prisoners should not get the vote, and that's that. But we are going to have to sort this out one way or the other."

The standoff dates back to 2005 when the ECHR ruled that legislation depriving prisoners of the right to vote was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

© 2011 AFP

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