A pardon is not an apology

Knapps

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22, Oct 2016

The ‘Turing bill’ which would have given an ‘automatic pardon’ to gay and bisexual men convicted of now-abolished sexual offences in England and Wales has been ‘filibustered’ by a lawmaker in the British Parliament. Knappily assesses the injustice towards homosexuals in Britain, a so-called progressive country which has left its anti-homosexual legacy throughout its colonies where anti-homosexuality laws passed during the British rule have still not been repealed.

What was the failed Alan Turing Bill about?

The Alan Turing bill that would have wiped clean the criminal records of thousands of gay men failed at its first parliamentary hurdle.

  • The amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill that would have provided posthumous pardons was first put forward by Liberal Democrat upper house peer Lord Sharkey in 2012.
  • After decades of campaigning by the LGBT community and Turing’s family, major political parties eventually pledged to introduce what became known as Turing’s Law in 2015.
  • The private member's bill, put forward by John Nicholson, an MP with the Scottish Nationalist Party, would have pardoned all men living with UK convictions for same-sex offences committed before the law was changed.
  • His bill would have "set aside" nearly 50,000 convictions, about 15,000 of which apply to men who are still alive today.

The U.K. government announced a rival measure, an amendment to the Policing and Crimes Bill that would make living people apply for their own pardon while the dead will be pardoned automatically. Justice Minister Gyimah said the government had chosen to support Sharkey’s amendment because “it is hugely important that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offenses who would be innocent of any crime today.”

However, the government refused to support Mr Nicolson's Sexual Offences (Pardons) Bill - which proposes a blanket pardon for the living, without the need to apply for their criminal records to be cleared by the Home Office.

Why did it fail in the British Parliament?

A Conservative Party lawmaker on October 21 filibustered (obstruct a proposed legislation by speaking at inordinate length) the bill pardoning gay men still alive but who were convicted in the past of now-abolished laws against homosexuality in the U.K. – a day after announcing that the government will back a previously proposed alternative.

  • Minister Sam Gyimah "talked out" the bill, which will not go ahead now. He spoke for 25 minutes, reaching the time limit allotted for the debate.
  • The government in its argument against the bill claimed that passing Mr Nicolson’s Bill could lead to people claiming they had been cleared of sexual offenses that are still regarded as crimes, such as having sex with a minor or non-consensual sexual activity.
  • I understand and support the intentions behind Mr Nicolson’s Bill,” Minister Gyimah said in a statement. “However I worry that he has not fully thought through the consequences. A blanket pardon, without the detailed investigations carried out by the Home Office under the disregard process, could see people guilty of an offense which is still a crime today claiming to be pardoned”.

That is simply not true”, Sara Ogilvie, a policy officer for the human rights advocacy group Liberty, tells TIME. “The bill debated today had a clear statement that if the thing you were committed for was still an offense you would not be pardoned for it.”

The conditions for pardon clearly stated that:

  • The other person involved at the time the act was committed was a consenting partner aged 16 or above.
  • The act would not constitute an offence under section 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (sexual activity in a public lavatory).
  • The act in question would not still be illegal for any other reason.

When was homosexuality decriminalized in the U.K.?

The Sexual Offences Act decriminalised private homosexual acts between men aged over 21 in England and Wales, in 1967.

  • The law was not changed in Scotland until 1980, or in Northern Ireland until 1982.
  • Although gay sex was legalized in 1967, the legislation in fact only represented the partial decriminalization of gay sex in certain very specific circumstances — specifically between two men over 21, and in private.
  • Those men caught having consensual sex with those under the age of consent, or with more than one other person, or in public, were subject to prosecution.
  • Incredibly, in 1989, more than 2,000 men were convicted of consenting adult same-sex relations, which was almost as many annual convictions as in the years 1950-55.
  • As recently as 1997, men were being jailed for consensual gay sex in the U.K.

In 2001 the age of consent for homosexual sex was lowered to the same age as for heterosexual sex, 16.

  • Anyone living who has been convicted of such offences could already apply through the Home Office to have the offence wiped from their criminal records since 2013.
  • According to the New York Times, the pardon only applies to men as lesbian sex was never specifically outlawed in the country, although lesbians were long prosecuted under various vice statues.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in the U.K. since 2014.

Where has homosexuality been legalized recently?

  • The tiny nations of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean and São Tomé and Príncipe in the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of central Africa decriminalized homosexuality in 2014.
  • Mozambique, on the southeastern coast of Africa, with a population of 24 million, adopted a new Penal Code in the second half of 2014 that decriminalized homosexuality.
  • Lesotho also adopted a new Penal Code, which effectively eliminated the nation’s former common-law crime of sodomy.
  • Seychelles and Nauru repealed their anti-gay laws in May 2016, as did Belize in August 2016.

A total of 72 countries still have criminal laws against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people (LGBTIs), according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA.

  • Around the world right now, more than a billion people still live under archaic anti-gay laws, many of which were imposed by the British Empire and never repealed.
  • Forty out of the 53 Commonwealth member states still criminalize homosexuality under colonial-era laws — including India, Uganda, Cameroon, and Nigeria.

Who was specially pardoned of the offense?

Queen Elizabeth II granted World War Two code-breaker Alan Turing for gross indecency a posthumous pardon in 2013.

  • Turing was a brilliant mathematician who played the key role in breaking Germany’s top-secret Enigma code in World War II, which gave the Allies a major edge over the Nazis and eventually helped win the war.
  • His work also led to the creation of the modern computer—his “Turing test” is still considered the gold standard for determining the quality of artificial intelligence.
  • Despite Winston Churchill describing Turing’s code-breaking as “the single biggest contribution to the allied victory,” he was ousted on charges of homosexuality in 1952 and was sentenced to “treatment”.
  • He accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. Two years later he took his life with an apple laced in cyanide.
  • Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in response to a petition, issued an apology on behalf of the British government in 2009 for "the appalling way he was treated".
  • Turing’s horrific life story captured the attention of the British public after it was dramatized in The Imitation Game, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the code-breaker whose genius is widely credited with shortening the Second World War by several years and saving countless millions of lives.

In April 2016, the head of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, also apologized, for its past discrimination against gays.

  • The men were convicted — tens of thousands of them — of crimes like buggery, gross indecency and loitering with intent. They had been arrested in bars, coffee houses and public bathrooms, and sometimes in the privacy of their homes and with their partners. In many cases, their only offense was seeking intimacy with another man.
  • In the early 1950s, the police actively enforced laws prohibiting sexual behaviour between men. By the end of 1954, there were 1,069 gay men in prison in England and Wales, with an average age of 37.
  • Back then, there was an atmosphere of a witch-hunt, with consequent opportunities for blackmail. The belief that homosexuality constituted an illness and could be cured was a staple of the popular press during the period.

How a pardon isn’t good enough?

British gay-rights campaigners have criticized the “pardoning” of men who never committed a crime.

  • The campaigners say a “pardon” still implies guilt on the part of gay men, and that the pardon does not go far enough to apologize for centuries of injustice.
  • I was not guilty of anything,” said George Montague, 93, a gay activist and author who lives in Brighton, England and was convicted in the 1970s of gross indecency. “I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. My name was on the ‘queer list,’ which the police had in those days. And I will not accept a pardon.

Matt Houlbrook, a professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham and the author of “Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957,” said the government’s announcement could have “symbolic and practical importance” for men still seeking to clear their names, but he argued that the pardons were somewhat beside the point.

  • A retrospective pardon doesn’t do much to atone for the realities of what it was like to be arrested and prosecuted at the time,” he said.

Peter Tatchell, the leading British gay-rights campaigner, told that while most gay people supported the pardon, there also needed to be a public apology by British Prime Minister Theresa May and that compensation should be paid for “the incredible suffering these men went through.

  • Tatchell added, “*Many were imprisoned and abused by fellow inmates and warders, some lost their jobs and homes and were driven to alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide. The word ‘pardon’ has unpleasant connotations; it implies forgiveness for a crime committed. Most people in society would now agree that consenting adult same-sex behavior should have never been a crime in the first place, so no forgiveness is required.”*
  • The crucial thing is a public apology on behalf of the British people.A pardon is waving a conviction without acknowledging that the conviction was wrong in the first place.”

An apology is far-fetched, when even the pardoning is not one that’s whole-hearted.The fact that individuals who were wronged by an unjust law have to approach Home Office to clear their name off criminal records, goes to show the government of United Kingdom is far from sorry for having had such a barbaric law in the first place which led to homosexuals not just in Britain, but all around the world (in its erstwhile colonies) face discrimination and ill-treatment by governments.

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Tags | anti-homosexuality laws automatic pardon homosexuals injustice Turing bill