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You may well have read yesterday that Richard Mawrey QC, the judge in the forthcoming Election Court petition for Tower Hamlets, had apparently intervened following allegations of witness intimidation.

The petitioners had hosted a press conference in Brick Lane on Monday evening to outline their concerns.

The petitioner’s chair, Dame Janet Digby-Baker, who runs a fostering agency in Mile End, said they had been told by at least one witness that their families in Bangladesh would “would be hurt” or even “killed” if they did not withdraw their statements.

According to a thoroughly confused report of the press conference by Breitbart London, here, these allegations had caused Mr Mawrey to make a ruling that “witnesses’ names and addresses will no longer be made public”.

An accurate report appeared online at The Wharf, where Rob Virtue wrote:

Petitioner Andy Erlam said another man who had complained to the petition that his postal ballot paper had been stolen had been “approached by strangers six or seven times on the street and aggressively confronted about ‘why he was attacking the mayor'”.

“I’ve seen he’s partially withdrawn his statement in evidence,” said Mr Erlam. “Why would someone complain to the police, talk openly to us, although nervous and frightened and then withdraw? It is something we’re going to have to sort out in court.”

Mr Erlam said Richard Mawrey QC, the Commissioner in the trial, had this week made the decision to allow anonymous witness statements in light of the accusations The group also appealed for victims of intimidation to contact the police.

The petitioners made clear that they were not in any way connecting Mayor Lutfur Rahman to the allegations.

Their claims at the press conference were based on an email Mr Mawrey had sent to the petition parties on Monday, when he wrote:

…I have the power in circumstances where I feel that a witness may be subject to intimidation or reprisal if he gives evidence to allow that witness to give evidence with his identity disclosed only to to the court and not to the other parties (or to the other parties’ lawyers only). I have exercised that power in the past and would do so again.

As a result of the news reports, Mr Mawrey, who is surely now beginning to realise what it’s like operating in Tower Hamlets, today sent a further email to the parties to the record straight.

He wrote:

If, at he hearing, I am satisfied that there has been or may be a risk of intimidation, I have the power to hear evidence in camera or to permit identities of witnesses to be withheld from the parties and the public.

I have not, of course, said that I am currently satisfied that there is such a risk or that I shall make any such order and I hope this is clear to all parties.

This appears to be a judicial expression of judicial irritation.

The petitioners might not have judged Monday’s public move particularly well. In his first directions order at the outset of the proceedings, Mr Mawrey wrote:

I appreciate that this petition is hotly contested and all parties feel strongly about the issues raised in it.

I would strongly counsel the parties (and that includes the second respondent) not to attempt to fight these battles in the media, social or otherwise. [My italics]

The issues are now sub judice and I consider that they should be treated as such even though petitions do not involve juries.

The petitioners may have “missed the memo”, so to speak.

As it happens, they may well have to up their game because Lutfur has just appointed a new barrister.

Jonathan Laidlaw QC, described (on his chambers’ website) as “one of the country’s leading silks”, is now acting alongside his more longstanding counsel, Helen Mountfield QC.

Laidlaw, who successfully defended former News International boss Rebekah Brooks in the phone hacking trial, has been hired to provide clout on some of the allegations of criminality in the petition.

Mountfield, who acted successfully for Lib Dem Elwyn Watkins against Labour’s Phil Woolas in the 2010 Oldham East Election Court petition, is considered more of a public law specialist.

It’s not yet clear whether both will act during the court hearing itself, which is expected in the New Year. It depends on which parts of the petition Mr Mawrey allows through to the courtroom.

It’s also worth noting that both silks are extremely expensive, Laidlaw particularly so.

And it’s also worth re-emphasising their fees will not be paid from public funds.

This is entirely a private risk for Lutfur, who faces possible bankruptcy if he loses.

However, he has set up a fighting fund to help cover his legal fees. I don’t know how much he’s raised or who the donors are.

Neither am I clear whether the fund or its backers must be declared publicly, eg on Lutfur’s register of interests. Can anyone help with this?

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Here’s an interesting insight into the mindset of Mayor Lutfur Rahman.

On December 7, Giles Broadbent, the editor of The Wharf newspaper, wrote a strongly worded opinion column detailing his exasperation with Lutfur’s refusal to answer questions from either members of the public or councillors at full council meetings.

At the previous meeting, opposition councillors fired a whole series of allegations his way, questioning whether council resources had been misused to help his re-election campaign. The council also voted to launch an investigation into claims by the Love Wapping blog that people purporting to work for Tower Hamlets Homes were canvassing for Lutfur during the day.

On each of these questions, Lutfur, though visibly reddening and seething, remained silent. Instead, he exercised his “right” to delegate the answers to his cabinet councillors who then stumbled and mumbled their way through the explanations.

Giles quite rightly thought this shameful.

Here’s part of what he wrote:

And what did the man himself have to say about all this at a recent council meeting when challenged? Furious denial? Tearful apology? The mayor said nothing. Being made to answer to the people “is contrary to his human rights”.

To the rest of the world, this continuing policy of silence is a joke, a punchline to a risible tale of East End lunacy. To the residents of Tower Hamlets, it is a serious and barbarous insult that damages their prosperity.

Compare Tower Hamlets to Newham. Both struck by terrible social and structural problems. Yet Newham – far from perfect – is at least outward looking and positive. It has embraced the Olympics and the Docks in order to share the dividends of growth.

Mr Rahman’s Tower Hamlets is backward, self-indulgent and dim. It is ripped apart by factionalism and stymied by cronyism. And the mayor, who sits atop this stinking pile, has nothing to offer but a sulk – truly a slap in the face for the residents who crave a future, not a
fiefdom.

It is to be hoped in the 2014 election the man who has tried so hard to undermine the principle of democratic accountability will feel the potency of its sting.

Lutfur took this rather badly and feeling the sting of The Wharf’s right to free speech in an opinion column based on the events of a full council meeting, Lutfur penned a letter of reply, which has been added to the original article. Here it is:

“Your column, ‘Spiral Notebook’; ‘Rahman’s insult to Tower Hamlets’, contains a series of gross inaccuracies and unfair innuendoes.

Surely, The Wharf has a responsibility to report and comment fairly? On the basis of this particular column it would appear that neither you nor your newspaper intends to do so in the run up to the Mayoral and local government elections in May.

You made no attempt to contact this council’s communications department or me, before publishing what amounts to a series of gross inaccuracies and innuendoes.

You have made direct allegations relating to the use of branded letters.

Such allegations are very serious and potentially imply a breach of electoral law.
The actual complaint relates to unbranded, council acknowledgement letters sent pursuant to casework.

The allegations that bogus representatives from the social housing company were using their access to residents in Wapping to flog [my] re-election bid are also completely untrue.

Cllr Alibor Choudhury categorically refuted these allegations, also made by the local Labour Party, in Full Council on 27 November. I also categorically refuted these claims in Cabinet on Wednesday 4 December. My rebuttal and that of Councillor Choudhury were carried in the East London Advertiser on Monday 2 December.

How, in these circumstances, you could run with these heavily contested and baseless allegations, let alone print them without putting them to me, is beyond me.

Similar claims have been made before, and the resulting police investigations have consistently found them to be baseless and a waste of police time.

Your comparisons between Tower Hamlets and Newham are insulting and inane. You may be interested to learn that not a single question has been asked of Mayor Sir Robin Wales, in any meeting of full council in the past seven months. In Tower Hamlets most of the political parties are represented. In Newham, all sixty councillors are from Sir Robin Wales’ party.

Perhaps The Wharf prefers a ‘one party borough’ solution?

I have never claimed that answering questions would ‘breach my human rights’ as you claim. I simply delegate the business of council to lead councillors, as is common-place in other local authorities.

I attend hundreds of public meetings where I am directly accountable to electors (rather than to opposition parties who were roundly rejected at the last election but by mere virtue of the electoral cycle continue to boast a majority in the chamber) and hold frequent press conferences where you and other journalists are welcome to hold me to account.

As a regular contributor to The Wharf, I had come to expect a whole lot better from your newspaper. I do hope that normal service may be resumed shortly.

Some who have read that last paragraph believe it’s an implied threat to withdraw his frequent offers of editorial magic. I’m not so sure it is, but if so…how the editors of the Bengali press must quake…

And as for his statement he holds frequent press conferences, does he? I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to one.

Anyway, let’s all applaud Lutfur’s determination to hold himself to account and also his championing of free speech.

I mean, free speech without intimidation and threats is a good thing right?

So what was Lutfur’s response to Anjem Choudary’s trip down Brick Lane last Friday when his Shariah Project groupies handed out mock-legal leaflets warning Bengali restaurateurs they faced hellfire or 40 lashes (take your pick!) for selling booze?

The East London Advertiser reports him saying:

We strongly believe in the right to free speech and association, and I am pleased that, with the police’s support, this group were able to exercise that right whilst upholding respect for our communities, which is the hallmark of our ‘No Place for Hate’ pledge.

He has to be kidding, right? Exactly what respect was Anjem showing to those he wants burnt in hell? Let’s remember that included in Amjem’s band of supporters are those convicted or terror and hate-related offences.

Only nine days ago, Anjem was reported in the Standard as saying the Muslim Patrol thugs who were convicted this month for abusing and attacking non-Muslims in Tower Hamlets deserved a “pat on the back”.

So isn’t Lutfur effectively saying, ‘You’re welcome to come back to protest and intimidate in Tower Hamlets any time you like?’

Which is a bit different to the message he rightly sends to that other fascist group, the English Defence League, which also claimed it merely wanted to exercise free speech.

I wonder if Lutfur, with this potential ‘one rule for one’ mentality secretly wants to provoke another visit by the EDL before next May.

By way of contrast, here are the thoughts of Labour group leader Sirajul Islam and the Muslim Council of Britain on Anjem’s visit:

Cllr Sirajul Islam, leader of the Labour group, said: “While Muslims may choose to abstain from alcohol, it is not right to forcefully push one view upon others.”

He added: “Provocative attempts to push a radical Sharia agenda will serve only to widen the divide between our communities, especially in light of the recent challenges we have faced from the EDL and so called ‘Muslim patrols’.”

Salman Farsi from the London Muslim Centre said: “While Islam may prohibit the consumption and sale of alcohol for Muslims, it is not for any particular groups to impose those views on others, nor bully other communities.”

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