‘Dates bribe’ for votes lands British-Pakistani politician in trouble

Allegations of Pakistan-style campaigning levelled against ex-city councillor for using corrupt practices

Murtaza Ali Shah
Birmingham’s ex-Lord Mayor Muhammad Afzal (centre) as seen in a doorbell camera footage. — Screengrab from video provided by author
Birmingham’s ex-Lord Mayor Muhammad Afzal (centre) as seen in a doorbell camera footage. — Screengrab from video provided by author

LONDON: An interesting case has come before a court in the United Kingdom which involved bribing voters by giving them dates, while allegations of a Pakistan-style campaigning have been levelled for using corrupt practices.

Birmingham’s ex-Lord Mayor Muhammad Afzal has applied at the high court to stop his own legal bid to overturn a Birmingham local council election result involving dates after a short video clip emerged showing him campaigning at the doorsteps with a fellow offering the fruit to Muslim voters in return for votes in favour of the Labour Party.

Afzal, the former Birmingham city councillor, had petitioned the High Court to dismiss and overturn the result of last May's poll in the local Aston area. While standing for Labour, he had lost the contest to Liberal Democrats but claimed being a victim of “false” claims that he tried to sway voters with packets of dates.

Afzal said his Liberal Democrats rivals Ayoub Khan and Mumtaz Hussain had falsely claimed that packs of dates stamped “Labour” were handed out in his name. He said in his claim that Khan and Hussain had lied about the dates.

Both Khan and Hussain had won seats in Aston. The 78-year-old Afzal applied to the election court to say the result should be scrapped over the date-bribery “slurs” as he claimed there was no truth in the allegations that he offered the fruit to voters.

In a dramatic turn at the court, lawyers representing Khan and Hussain presented footage — obtained from doorbell cameras — which showed that Afzal and his colleagues had actually given dates to voters. The former Lord Mayor then applied to end his action after viewing the footage of himself on the campaign trail. It showed him with supporters approaching the front doors and appearing to hand over packets of the dried fruit.

In one footage, Afzal is seen with two Pakistani men wearing shalwar kameez pressing the bell of a door. He then introduces himself as a Labour candidate asking for votes, while the second man approaches the voter carrying dates in a shopping bag and gives them a packet while requesting to vote for Labour.

The second footage shows the same man speaking to a female voter in Urdu and Mirpuri — Potwari language dialect spoken in Pakistan's Mirpur district — asking her to vote for Afzal, as he stands next to him holding leaflets.

“Vote Labour number one. Ramzan Mubarak and this is for you,” he says, while handing over a packet of dates.

Following the emergence of the two videos, Afzal's counsel told High Court Judge Richard Foster that it would be “impracticable” to continue with the petition to overturn the vote.

The lawyer wants to withdraw the petition and end the case, but Khan and Hussain's lawyers are determined to go ahead with the case and have asked the court for a finding.

David Martin-Sperry, a criminal barrister who is representing Khan, said: “Here we have, on video, clear evidence not of why it is impracticable for Mr Afzal to pursue his petition, but why in doing that, it is far from impracticable, it is dishonest."

"The court is looking at a situation where someone is caught with his fingers in the till — here the fingers are so far in the till the whole arm is in the till," he added.

Barrister Sham Uddin, representing Mumtaz Hussain, asked the judge to deny the request to withdraw the petition and proceed to trial as he could “ultimately make a finding of corrupt or illegal practice” and a criminal finding.

“This case is important to show that you cannot bribe voters directly or indirectly," he said.

In the original petition application, posted last June, Afzal had stated that claims made by his opponents were “false”.

The petition also said the social media posts and leaflets "included false allegations that (Afzal) was engaging in unlawful conduct by bribing and/or treating, ‘campaigning corruptly as if in Pakistan’, and had been giving dates within the Aston Ward to induce votes".

“Barrister Ayoub Khan and Mumtaz Hussain said ‘Ramadan’ is a blessing that Muslims practice every year. It is a real shame and insulting that Labour chose to treat selected Muslim voters in the Aston Ward ONLY this year. Labour has never done this during previous Ramadans. Election Law is clear that any form of 'treating or bribery' is a criminal offence and those that are responsible may be prosecuted," the petition read.

The petition also quoted: “They ought to know better that this is classed as bribery and treating under the representation of the peoples act. This is not Pakistan where you can buy ‘votes’ and I'm sure that the people of Aston will see this illegal activity offering as an insult.”

The judge will decide on Wednesday whether to proceed with the trial or not.