22nd Oct 2016

European court says serious criminals can be banned from voting

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg ruled on Tuesday (22 May) that it is up to member states to decide on whether to grant prisoners the right to vote.

Inmates charged with minor offences and short sentences should have the right, said the court. Meanwhile, member states can decide if serious offenders like rapists and murders should have it or not.

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  • Prisoners serving minor sentences should have the right to vote, says the Strasbourg-based European court of human rights. (Photo:

The ECHR decision was based on an Italian inmate's complaint that he was deprived the right to vote following his murder conviction. The inmate killed his wife in 1999 and injured one of his sons. He received a 30-year sentence in 2002.

Under the Italian criminal code, he has no right to hold public office and does not have the right to take part in elections. But he appealed on the basis of an article on the right to free elections inscribed in an ECHR founding document, the European Convention on Human Rights.

For its part, the Italian state argued that such rights are deprived only for inmates serving sentences that are three years or longer. A large number of Italian inmates, charged for far less grave crimes, are already entitled to vote in parliamentary elections.

The court pointed out an inmate with good conduct could earn the right to vote after having served his initial three year term.

The case is linked to another judgement filed against the United Kingdom in 2005. In that case, the ECHR ruled against the UK because "of the general, automatic and indiscriminate nature of the measure depriving convicted prisoners of the right to vote."

Another UK case filed in 2010 led to similar conclusions, in which the court ruled in the favour of the inmate.

UK ministers want to limit the right to vote to those sentenced to a year or less. The UK protested the judgement and has refused to implement changes in its electoral law despite losing the case.

Consequently, some 2,500 similar UK applications have been lodged with the court, with the number still growing.

The Strasbourg court said that the UK has six months to amend its electoral laws and to remove its indiscriminate ban on the prison vote.

If it refuses, it may have to pay up to €200 million in punitive damages to the 2,500-and-more new claimants fighting their cause.

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