London: British lawmakers debated Thursday whether to grant prisoners the right to vote in national elections, after Europe`s human rights court told the UK it can no longer deny inmates a vote.
The issue has enraged victims` groups and stirred up old grievances about the power of European courts to overrule Britain`s elected lawmakers. Many British lawmakers are deeply opposed to changing a centuries-old law, and Prime Minister David Cameron has said it made him "physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners."
Unlike many other European nations, convicted criminals held in British jails have been denied the chance to vote in national elections since 1870. Those awaiting trial are not restricted.
Though Britain is obliged to honor the European court`s rulings, the presiding sentiment in Parliament is overwhelmingly against doing so, and lawmakers are likely to vote against the principle Thursday.
"I don`t see any reason why prisoners should get the vote," Cameron told lawmakers on Wednesday. "This is not a situation I want this country to be in."
Britain must change its laws after convict John Hirst — jailed for the 1979 ax murder of his landlady — won a long legal battle to prove that the legislation was an unfair restriction of prisoners` rights. The High Court in London initially dismissed his case in 2001, but in 2005 the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France, ruled in his favor.
Last November, with Britain`s government still refusing to implement the court`s ruling, the Council of Europe set a six-month deadline for the UK to introduce appropriate legislation to comply.
In a video posted to YouTube, Hirst said he would celebrate for all prisoners who would be granted a vote "including those murderers, rapists, pedophiles." His comments sparked outrage among victims of serious crime.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said Wednesday the UK won`t allow dangerous criminals to take part in elections but may offer the vote to inmates serving less than four years in jail.
Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and some other European nations have no restrictions on a prisoner`s right to vote — while EU countries including Italy, Malta and Poland exclude only those who have committed serious offenses.
Thursday`s vote in Parliament is not binding on the government but will be considered when it drafts the legislation.