Lutfur Rahman faces bankruptcy, being stripped of his profession as a lawyer and the risk of a criminal investigation that could lead to jail, after a judge said that he and his witnesses told a “pack of lies” in court.
He was the first person since the 19th century to be found guilty of the Victorian-era misdeed of unlawful religious influence. Bangladesh-born Mr Rahman, who was mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was also found to be responsible for a range of illegal and corrupt practices including bribery and voter fraud.
The Judge, who is also the election commissioner, fiercely condemned politicians who create division by encouraging Muslims to see themselves as victims, dividing their communities from the rest of society and creating resentment among the rest of the population.
“The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community,” his judgment said. “Their natural and laudable sense of solidarity has been cynically perverted into a sense of isolation and victimhood, and their devotion to their religion has been manipulated — all for the aggrandisement of Mr Rahman.
“The result has been to alienate them from the other communities in the borough and to create resentment in these other communities. It is the result of the ruthless ambition of one man.”
Mr Rahman bribed voters by taking public money from organisations, even the Alzheimer’s Society, and giving it instead to “lunch clubs” that served the Bangladeshi and Somali communities.
“The Bangladeshi community might have thought itself fortunate to have been the recipient of the mayor’s lavish spending but in the end the benefits were small and temporary and the ill-effects long-lasting. It was fool’s gold.”
The judge said the evidence indicated that Hafiz Moulana Shamsul Hoque, the chairman of the council of mosques of Tower Hamlets, “had not told the truth” in the case. “A court will be very wary of disbelieving evidence given on oath by a cleric, of any faith,” the judge said. “Sadly, the court was not able to treat Mr Hoque as a reliable witness.”
The four local voters who brought the election petition against Mr Rahman had argued that the mayor obtained the support of local clerics through his close relationship with Mr Hoque. “The chairman is someone of considerable power and influence among the Muslim clerics of the borough and to have him as an ally would be a trump card in Mr Rahman’s re-election bid,” the judge said.
Mr Hoque led a list of 101 imams and scholars who wrote a letter in Bengali in the Bangladeshi press, six days before last year’s election, claiming that the Muslim religion was under attack and it was the duty of faithful Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman.
Labour’s John Biggs, Mr Rahman’s chief challenger, was falsely portrayed by the mayor and his supporters as a racist who was encouraging the extremist English Defence League in the area. In fact, Mr Biggs had been the spearhead of the anti-racist movement in the borough since at least the 1990s.
All the convincing evidence of corruption and illegality brought before the High Court had been uncovered by the four members of the public who brought the petition and none by the police, although Scotland Yard had made much of its huge presence of officers in the borough on polling day. The judge suggested that “an unkind person might remark that the policemen . . . had appeared to take as their role model the legendary three wise monkeys”.
The judge found that all the councillors elected for Mr Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party last year were elected corruptly although there appears to be no power to remove them. The judgment removes Mr Rahman as mayor and leaves the authority rudderless until a new election.
After a seven-week electoral trial, Mr Rahman faces costs estimated at £1 million and the judge said he may be bankrupted. The judge will report him to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority, which can strike him off. The director of public prosecutions will consider the evidence, raising the prospect of a criminal investigation into the corrupt poll.
“On past form, it appears inevitable that Mr Rahman will denounce this judgment as yet another example of racism and Islamophobia,” the judge said. “It is nothing of the sort. Mr Rahman has made a successful career by ignoring or flouting the law and has relied on silencing his critics by accusations of racism and Islamophobia. But his critics have not been silenced.”
Tower Hamlets First said: “Today’s judgment comes as a shock. The mayor denies any wrongdoing and had full confidence in the justice system. We are seeking further legal advice on the matter in relation to a judicial review.”
Tower Hamlets timeline
October 2010 Lutfur Rahman becomes first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, standing as an independent, with 52 per cent of votes
April 2014 Panorama investigation into the mayor raises questions about scrutiny of spending decisions. Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, orders in inspectors
May 2014 Mr Rahman re-elected with 3,000 majority over Labour
June 2014 Four local voters from various parties launch election petition claiming the mayor’s victory was illegal and corrupt
November 2014 Inspectors produce critical report. Mr Pickles threatens to send commissioners to seize control of grants and property
February 2015 The longest election trial since the 19th century opens at the High Court, with seven weeks of hearings ahead
April 2015 Mr Rahman’s re-election declared void