Election Petition Judgement : Tower Hamlets 2014
[2015] EWHC 1215 (QB)

Undue spiritual influence

  1. This is, without any doubt, the most troublesome part of the case.
  2. In the Britain of 2015 anything that concerns Islam is extremely sensitive. Whatever this judgment says on the subject of spiritual influence is likely to prove controversial and may cause offence, either genuine or feigned. As has already been pointed out, when this judgment discusses the relevant law, it would have been easy to evade the issue by holding that, notwithstanding the clear words of the statute, spiritual influence should be treated as obsolete.

  3. To evade an issue or to reach a 'fudged' solution in the hope of avoiding offence would be an abdication of the judicial function. It may sound pompous to cite the old Latin tag fiat Justitia ruat caelum (let justice be done though the heavens fall) but a court that works on any other principle and does so for fear of the consequences is betraying the trust that the public reposes in it.
  4. It is accepted, therefore, that this section of the judgment cannot help but be controversial.
  5. The Petitioners' case may be summarised as follows. In formulating his campaign, Mr Rahman, as well as playing the race card, was determined to play the religious card. The campaign would be targeted at Tower Hamlets' Muslim population with a stark message:
  6. 'Islam is under threat: it is the religious duty of all devout Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman and his party.'

  7. It was not, the Petitioners said, the first time that the religious card had been played.
  8. There was a persistent history of Mr Rahman attacking his opponents who happened to be Muslim by claiming that they were not, unlike himself, devout and pious Muslims. When leader of the Council, Mr Rahman had caused controversy by issuing a formal invitation from the Council, seemingly without consulting his colleagues, to the Imam of Mecca to pay a visit to the Borough. Clearly the Imam of Islam's holiest place is a man who would be accorded the highest respect, even reverence, by the faithful. When he arrived, Mr Rahman took good care to ensure that he personally gave the Imam a conducted tour of Tower Hamlets with photographers in attendance.

    On the face of it, there was not the slightest harm in all this and is it light years away from the offence of spiritual influence. On the other hand, it did Mr Rahman no harm electorally when he ran as an independent for Mayor and it was a sign of things to come.

  9. In the 2014 campaign, Mr Rahman realised that it would be all very well him and his supporters claiming that true Muslims should vote for him or even that it was their religious duty to do so, but, because he and his associates were politicians, not clerics, such a campaign would be seen as a political campaign and not as a religious movement. The only way to give real credibility to the campaign would be to obtain the open support of the Borough's Muslim clergy.
  10. The Petitioners' case is that Mr Rahman solicited and obtained the support of the clerics, largely through a close relationship between himself and Mr Hoque, the Chairman of the Council of Mosques. Though perhaps not in the same league as the Imam of Mecca, the Chairman is someone of considerable power and influence amongst 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.
  11. The Petitioners rely on two incidents involving Mr Rahman and Mr Hoque. The first of these occurred at a meeting held by a Bangladeshi organisation known as 'Tower Hamlets Jagroto' at the Water Lily, a venue in Mile End Road, on 4 May 2014. The guest of honour was Mr Rahman and the event was avowedly a political rally in his support. Mr Rahman shared the platform with a number of Muslim clerics, with Mr Hoque prominent in the front row.
  12. The official version, as related by Mr Rahman and Mr Hoque (to whom we shall return) was that this was no more than a political rally with no religious content. The meeting was, however, attended by an enthusiastic young supporter of Mr Rahman called Syed Naem Ahmad who posted a long report of the meeting on social media. Mr Ahmad gave evidence and the court is satisfied that the account posted by him is substantially accurate. It was common ground that all, or virtually all, to those attending were from the Bangladeshi community.
  13. The report seems originally to have been intended for the Bangla Mirror newspaper but was given general currency by Mr Ahmad's post. Under the heading
  14. 'Jagroto Tower Hamlets organises meeting in support of Lutfur Rahman',

    the relevant parts of the report read:

    Reject hatred and discrimination, says (sic) Islamic scholars and community leaders.....

    Prominent Islamic scholars and community leaders in Tower Hamlets have urged the general public to vote for Mayor Lutfur Rahman to retain equal rights and the development of the borough.

    Islamic Scholars, Mosque Imams, Islamic Teachers, Community Leaders and elderly people from different wards of Tower Hamlets made this appeal to general people in a meeting held in Water Lily in East London on 4 May. The meeting was organised by Jagroto Tower Hamlets.

    The leaders said that once highly deprived Tower Hamlets was now placed in higher grid of national evaluation list in education, development and housing. After a long struggle against racism and discrimination, Tower Hamlets is now the first choice for people of all races and religious background. One group of people, who never appreciate development and cohesion are now practicing dirty tricks to stop this progress. They want to achieve their goal by dividing the community. Ulamae [55] Keram and Community leaders said that we have been treated as second class citizens because of our faith and race. We become targets in election time which is causing panic and tension in the community.

    We have noticed that Islamic Scholars, mosques and Imam of Kaba [56] have been targets of political misrepresentation. We condemn these actions and call upon [text missing here]

    Council of Mosques' Chairman Maolana Shamsul Haque [57] Presided over the meeting and Jagroto Tower Hamlets leader Maolana Syed Naseem Ahmed conducted it. The Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets addressed the audience as Chief Guest.

    [There then followed a list of some 24 people who with 'others' are said to have made speeches. The list contains politicians, journalists and Muslim religious leaders.]

    In his speech Mayor Lutfur Rahman expressed his gratitude towards Islamic scholars for supporting and encouraging him and asked for their blessing so that he can be on the path of truth, honesty and have faith in Allah always. He said that, I grew up in Tower Hamlets and witnessed how my ancestors worked and suffered hard just for their survival. I was to present a safe and developed borough to our next generation. I want to work for everyone irrespective their race, religious belief and cultural background. He also said that my religious belief and Bangladeshi heritage is my pride. I will never forget the love and affection that the people of this borough have shown to me and I will always keep it up. I want to serve you as a child of yours.

    Maolana Shamsul Haque said that the society of Islamic scholars want good relations and cohesion in the society. However, when some people target us on purpose, it is our moral duty to protect us. I want to express without any hesitation that religion never creates division in society but unites everyone. He urged everyone to vote for Mayor Lutfur Rahman to retain truth, righteousness and practice religious belief.

  15. The second of these episodes occurred at a wedding reception held on 11 May 2014, again at the Water Lily. This, too, was attended by Mr Rahman as guest of honour and the senior Muslim cleric present was again Mr Hoque. The wedding was apparently well-attended and was used by Mr Rahman as a political platform. He made a lengthy speech [58] beginning:
  16. Here present Chairman of Council of Mosques [Mr Hoque], Scholars of Islam, my respected brother Sirqjul Haque and the respected audiences, Salam. ..... I was very shy and worried to hear all the praises and appreciations by the Islamic Scholar [59] (Presenter). I am very grateful to you all for the generous comments you made. I will say few words; first of all I am grateful to Allah. I am grateful that God gave me opportunity to serve you & to look after you.....

  17. Later in the speech Mr Rahman said:
  18. The only BME place is in Tower Hamlets, there are 15 directly elected Mayors exist (in the UK), only in Tower Hamlets the BME, Bangladeshis and Muslims . There are no places like this leadership. In order to move from this some people provided misinformation from Panorama to Dispatch and by walking door to door, they also provided untrue statements. What is the reason behind this, the reason is that at any cost they don't want this leadership. Insha'Allah, my belief is that if the people of Tower Hamlets and you want this leadership no one can be able to move us from Muslims Bengali leadership, Insha'Allah.

  19. He ended:
  20. I am very grateful to those Islamic clerks and scholars, who are here today. I know your time is valuable. I will only ask you all to pray for me and my team, salam .

  21. He was followed immediately by Mr Hoque. There are two slightly different translations of what he said but none of the differences are of any significance. I shall adopt that of Mr A. K. Asad, the interpreter engaged by the Petitioners. Mr Hoque said:
  22. Today we, our relatives, neighbours and the residents of Tower Hamlets living in this community, we are fortunate that we are able to give a gift from our community to the people of Britain we have decided to nominate our Mayor again, the Mayor is also present here, Insha'Allah; we will pray now and would like to thank the two families who have invited us.

    At this moment the responsibility we have as we are celebrating the wedding event, we will elect the Mayor again and celebrate his victory. I urge all of you to keep in mind that the forthcoming election will be held on 22nd. We have to forget 'win or lose'; this election is to sustain our own existence and asking you to prayer. I think the Mayor would like to say you all 'Thank you'.

  23. Before turning to the main feature of the case on spiritual influence, the court must deal with how the protagonists presented these two events. Mr Hoque was called to give evidence. He was one of the witnesses who insisted on an interpreter while making it quite clear that he understood English perfectly well. Indeed it would have been surprising if someone occupying his position could carry out his functions without at least a working knowledge of English.
  24. Be that as it may, his account of both events differed markedly from that given above. Like Mr Rahman he denied that his intervention at these events had carried a marked religious slant or that he had urged faithful Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman. Had matters remained there, the court might have found it difficult to disentangle the truth. In respect of the first event, however, the court had the near-contemporaneous account of Mr Ahmad which was clearly truthful and, given that Mr Ahmad was a supporter of Mr Rahman, one that was most unlikely to be fabricated.
  25. In relation to the wedding event, the account given by Mr Rahman and Mr Hoque was sabotaged by the fact that this was a wedding and, at weddings, people take videos. A video turned up showing the speeches, including that of Mr Hoque, and a translation was provided. This showed a very different series of events from that depicted by Mr Rahman and Mr Hoque.
  26. Obviously a court will be very wary of disbelieving evidence given on oath by a cleric, especially a senior cleric, of any faith. The external evidence, however, strongly indicated that Mr Hoque had not told the truth about these events. The evidence he gave about the next element was also very unsatisfactory. Sadly, the court was not able to treat Mr Hoque as a reliable witness.
  27. What did become clear was that Mr Hoque was a friend and associate of Mr Rahman who lent himself willingly to Mr Rahman's re-election campaign. It may be the case - indeed the court assumes it is the case - that Mr Hoque genuinely believed that it was in the best interests of the Muslim and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community for Mr Rahman to be re-elected. What is apparent from the history of the two events (and earlier events such as the EWG dinner) is that Mr Hoque and Mr Rahman were working hand-in-glove and that, at the very least, Mr Hoque's activities on behalf of Mr Rahman were carried on with the latter's knowledge and consent.
  28. Although evidence was only adduced of these two incidents at which Mr Hoque publically endorsed Mr Rahman's candidature, it seems extremely unlikely that Mr Hoque's message was confined to these episodes or that he otherwise kept silent about his support, but the court will confine itself to those episodes where credible evidence exists.
  29. On 16 May 2014 (6 days before the election) the Weekly Desh, a newspaper published in Bengali and in English with a circulation of about 20,000 (mainly in the Borough), carried a letter. The letter was solely in Bengali and no English version appeared in the paper. There is an accepted translation of the letter which the court will adopt.
  30. The letter was signed by 101 Imams and other religious leaders and scholars. Leading the list was Mr Hoque. There was no suggestion that any of the signatures on the letter was other than genuine - the letter had indeed been signed by 101 Muslim leaders. It was said, at one stage, that the number 101 has a special significance in Islam but this was not expanded upon. Patently, however, for 101 prominent clerics and scholars to sign a letter in a single London Borough, albeit one with a large Muslim population, is a serious matter and the letter was intended to be taken seriously.
  31. Before dealing with the letter itself, it is necessary to recall that this election campaign was widely conducted in the media (by all parties). The letter in the Weekly Desh was not just a matter between the newspaper and its readers. It was given enormous prominence in the other media, especially the Bangladeshi media, and, inevitably, on social media. The effect of the letter, therefore, went a great deal wider than the 20,000 readership of the Desh.
  32. Bearing in mind that any grammatical infelicities are the responsibility of the translator and not the authors of the Bengali original, the text of the letter is as follows:

    Creating opportunities, making provisions and providing services to the citizens on behalf of Her Excellency the Queen. In this case everyone has a freedom of right to choose a candidate who is suitable and able to provide the services.

    However we are observing that the media propagandas, narrow political interests etc involving the Mayoral election of Tower Hamlets Council have created a kind of a negative impression which in turn have created confusions amongst the public, divided the community and put the community in question.

    We are further observing that today's Tower Hamlets have made significant and enviable improvements in the areas of housing, education, community cohesion, inter-faith harmony, road safety and youth developments. In order to retain this success and make further progress it is essential that someone is elected as Mayor of the Tower Hamlets Borough on 22nd May who is able to lead these improvements and who will not discriminate on the basis of language, colour and religious identities.

    We observe that some people are targeting the languages, colours and religions and attempting to divide the community by ignoring the cohesion and harmony of the citizens. This is, in fact, hitting the national, cultural and religious 'multi' ideas of the country and spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable.

    With utmost concern we observe that by shunning the needs and opportunities of the Tower Hamlets Council and its citizens, Islamophobia, which is the result of the current political stance and which has derived from false imagination, has been made an agenda for voting and voters. The mosques and religious organisations have been targeted. It is being publicised that any relationship [involvement] with the religious scholars and clerics are condemnable and is an offence. Religious beliefs and religious practice are being criticised.

    One of the local former councillors of the Labour Party has stated in the BBC's Panorama programme that 'Religions divide people'. Even in the same programme the honourable Imam of the Holy Kaba Sharif was presented in negative and defaming ways and thus all the religious people, particularly the Muslims, have been insulted and thrown in to a state of anxiety. We cannot support these ill attempts under any circumstances. We believe that it is not an offence to be a Muslim voter, an imam or Khatib [60] of a mosque and have involvement with all these. Under no circumstances it is acceptable to give a voter less value or to criticise them on the basis of their identity.

    As voters, like in any other elections we also have a right to vote in the forthcoming Tower Hamlets Mayoral Election and we should have the opportunity to cast our votes without fear. As a cognisant group of the community and responsible voters and for the sake of truth, justice, dignity and development we express our unlimited support for Mayor Lutfur Rahman and strongly call upon you, the residents of Tower Hamlets, to shun all the propagandas and slanders and unite against the falsehood and injustice.

  34. Although this document speaks of 'the community' throughout in a neutral fashion, it must be recalled that the letter was published solely in the Bengali language in a newspaper whose readership (at least in its Bengali editions) was restricted to Bengali speakers. It had not appeared in the English section of the newspaper.
  35. In the context 'the community' means, and is intended to be taken as 'the Bangladeshi community'.

  36. What is this document? Although written in a foreign language by clerics of a different faith, Dr Nulty would have had no difficulty in recognising this document. It is a pastoral letter, remarkably similar to his letter to the faithful of County Meath and published in the Drogheda Independent on 2 July 1892. In other words it is a letter from an influential cleric - in this case 101 influential clerics - informing the faithful as to their religious duty.
  37. As with the Bishop, the Imams' message is clear;

    • our religion is under attack,
    • our enemies despise us and wish to humiliate us;
    • it is your duty as faithful sons and daughters of the [Church][Mosque] to vote for candidate X: only he will defend our religion and our community.

    As the Imams' letter puts it

    '[our opponents are] spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable'.

    The Bishop could not - indeed did not - express it more succinctly.

  38. There is another echo of the Bishops' letter. The 101 signatories (which must represent a high proportion of the Imams and teachers of the Borough) may be compared with Dr Nulty's invocation of the entire Roman Catholic hierarchy of Ireland (the 29 prelates) as supportive of his views. The numbers themselves are irrelevant. What the Imams are saying, as the Bishop was saying, is:
  39. 'this is not the view of one man: this is the considered consensus of your religious leaders'.

  40. It is not unknown for clergymen to write to the press. Earlier in 2015, a number of Anglican bishops wrote a fifty-page 'open letter' to the media, mildly criticising politicians of all parties and calling for a new politics. This was fairly harmless and did little beyond earning the hapless clerics the label of having produced a party political pamphlet for the Labour Party in the coming General Election.
  41. There is a world of difference, however, between what might, if unkindly, be termed a general ecclesiastical bleat about how politics has gone to the dogs, and a specially targeted letter aimed at one particular body of the faithful, telling them their religious duty is to vote for candidate A and not for candidate B.
  42. What was the effect of the letter? First, as has been pointed out, it was widely reported in the other press and broadcast media and on social media. Its influence stretched well beyond the readers of the Weekly Desh.
  43. Secondly there is a substantial body of credible evidence that the Imams' message that it was the duty of faithful Muslims to vote for Mr Rahman entered the general campaign, with religious duty being mentioned in canvassing before the poll and to voters attending polling stations on election day (see below under 'intimidation').
  44. How the letter came to be written is shrouded in mystery. In addition to Mr Hoque, evidence was called from one of the other 100 Imams but he shed little light on the logistics of the letter's production. Mr Hoque maintained that someone else must have drafted it and that it was presented for his signature (he signed first) when it was in its final form. Who actually drafted it was never made clear. Experience would indicate that to compile a letter and to get 101 different people to agree with it and to sign it is a major undertaking.
  45. Then there is the timing - carefully arranged to appear on the last Friday before the election, doubtless in order to be much discussed at Friday prayers.
  46. Although the official line was that this document was compiled entirely by the clerics involved, it is noticeable that much of the language does bear a striking resemblance to that of the political messages put out by Mr Rahman's campaign. Although Mr Rahman claims to have been taken by surprise by the appearance of the letter, it beggars belief that neither he nor his close associates knew that it was coming out.
  47. Given the close relationship between Mr Rahman and Mr Hoque it would be astonishing if, during the arduous process of obtaining the agreement and signature of all the Imams, no word of it slipped out to Mr Rahman.

  48. The only inference one can draw from the evidence is that, at a relatively early stage, Mr Rahman decided to run his campaign on the basis that it was the religious duty of faithful Muslims to vote for him and to enlist the support of Mr Hoque to deliver what might be termed the imprimatur [61] of the senior Muslim clergy.
  49. This brings one back to the target audience. As has been set out above, everybody in the case agreed that a high proportion of the Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets were traditionalist, conservative and strongly religious. The letter was deliberately pitched at Bengali speakers (to the exclusion of English speaking Bangladeshis) and lined up a very large number of very senior clerics to sign it. There can be no doubt that the target audience would take advice about their religious duties from so many senior clerics and scholars very seriously indeed. A sophisticated metropolitan readership might smile patronisingly on the earnest strictures of the Bishops of the Church of England but many traditionalist and pious Muslim voters of Tower Hamlets are going to accept the word of their religious leaders as authoritative.
  50. Though it is true to say that the world has moved on considerably since 1892, there is little real difference between the attitudes of the faithful Roman Catholics of County Meath at that time and the attitudes of the faithful Muslims of Tower Hamlets.
  51. To some extent the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If Dr Nulty had not known his target audience well, he would not have couched his pastoral letter in the terms he did. If those responsible for the Imams' letter had not thought that it would have a significant influence on the votes of the Bengali-speaking devout Muslim voters of Tower Hamlets, they would not have gone to the considerable trouble of organising the letter and obtaining 101 signatures to it.

    One cannot put a document of that kind into the public domain and then say 'I didn't think it would have any effect.' If that were the case, why do it?

  52. If this part of s.115 of the 1983 is still good law - and in the judgment of the court, it is - and if the interpretation placed on the statute by the courts (albeit in the 19th century) is still valid - and in the judgment of the court, it is - then it must be said that no meaningful distinction can be drawn between the conduct of Mr Hoque and the others responsible for organising the Imams' letter and that of the Bishop of Meath.
  53. Controversial though it may be, and likely to cause offence, it is none the less the clear duty of this court to hold that the participation of the Muslim clerics in Mr Rahman's campaign to persuade Muslim voters that it was their religious duty to vote for him and, in particular, the Imams' letter, did, however unwittingly for most of the signatories, cross the line identified by Andrews J between what is permissible and what is impermissible.
  54. Sadly, therefore, the court feels it has no option but to find that there was undue spiritual influence contrary to s.115(2) of the 1983 Act.
  55. But that is not the end of the story. If, as is clearly the case, the influence was likely to affect the result of the election, such a finding would avoid the election but, by itself does so only under the general corruption provisions of s.164. The next question is thus whether the candidate or his agents have been guilty of undue influence.
  56. In view of the findings of the court as to the close relationship between Mr Rahman and Mr Hoque and what may, I hope not too facetiously, be described as their 'double-act' at various functions, it is right to class Mr Hoque as being within the category of 'agents' in the wider sense required by electoral law.
  57. Is Mr Rahman, however, assisted by s.158? If the candidate himself commits a corrupt practice, then he is personally guilty. If he does not commit it himself but it is committed with his knowledge and consent he is personally guilty unless the corrupt practice is treating or (as here) undue influence. Thus knowledge and consent of undue influence do not, by themselves, make the candidate personally guilty. Where undue influence is committed by an agent of the candidate, the candidate is guilty by his agents of the corrupt practice unless he can prove the four elements of s.158(3).
  58. In the light of the findings above, it seems inescapable that Mr Rahman was himself a party to the undue spiritual influence of the clerics, in which case s.158(3) does not arise. If, however, the court is wrong about that, subs (3) must be considered. Mr Rahman does not fare well with this subsection.
  59. Can Mr Rahman prove that
  60. '(a) ..... the offences mentioned in the report were committed contrary to the orders and without the sanction or connivance of the candidate or his election'?

    Clearly not: they were carried on with his sanction and connivance and he gave no contrary orders. Indeed he seems both to have invited and to have approved of the exhortations delivered by Mr Hoque in his presence.

  61. Can he assert
  62. '(b) that the candidate and his election agent took all reasonable means for preventing the commission of corrupt and illegal practices at the election'?

    The evidence is all to the contrary.

  63. Under (c), can one say
  64. 'that the offences mentioned in the report were of a trivial, unimportant and limited character'?

    Again, no.

  65. Finally can it be shown
  66. '(d) that in all other respects the election was free from any corrupt or illegal practice on the part of the candidate and of his agents'?

    Given the findings of personation, other voting offences, making false statements, paying canvassers and bribery, this cannot be shown.

  67. Though it may thus be academic whether Mr Rahman is regarded as personally guilty of undue influence or guilty through his agents, as set out above the court finds Mr Rahman personally guilty.

[55] : Ulama (as it is generally anglicised) signifies an important religious scholar.

[56] : The Imam of Mecca referred to above. The Kabaa or Ka’aba (normal western spellings) is situated within the Al-Masjid al-Haram Mosque in Mecca and is the holiest place in Islam, towards which all Muslims turn to pray.

[57] : Mr Hoque mentioned above.

[58] : All citations from this event are from an English translation as the event seems to have been conducted throughout in Bengali.

[59] : Who had introduced Mr Rahman’s speech and urged the audience to vote for him.

[60] : The Khatib delivers the narration or sermon at Friday prayers in the mosque

[61] : Catholic metaphors seem inevitable.