Court throws out Aston Lib Dem election smear claims
Liberal Democrat credibility in Birmingham is in tatters after a judge branded one of the party’s election candidates "dishonest" and accused a councillor of taking part in a "scurrilous" attempt to bend the truth.
Timothy Straker QC, sitting as the Elections Commissioner, threw out claims that Lib Dem candidate Saeed Aehmed lost the 2007 council election Aston because of a smear campaign by Labour councillor Muhammed Afzal.
At the end of a 24-day election petition hearing, estimated to have cost the public purse £500,000, Mr Straker said most of the evidence given by Mr Aehmed was unbelievable.
He challenged Mr Aehmed’s 27-year record of claiming invalidity benefit for various illnesses - ranging from asthma and high blood pressure to depression and nervousness - pointing out that the former candidate showed no sign of distress in court and had been fit enough to climb up lamp posts in the 1990s when displaying party literature.
Several disability grant applications forms filled in by Mr Aehmed or on his behalf, which resulted in the payment of £16,000 for improvements to his home at 91 Bevington Road, Aston, were dishonest and clearly "grossly exaggerated" his medical condition, Mr Straker said.
Turning his attention to Aston Lib Dem councillor Ayoub Khan, the cabinet member for local services, Mr Straker said he was satisfied there was no truth in a claim made by Coun Khan that Coun Afzal sought to pervert the course of justice by attempting to persuade witnesses not to attend the court hearing.
Other evidence given by Coun Khan, suggesting that supporters of Coun Afzal accused Mr Aehmed of disability grant fraud, was also thrown out.
Referring to Coun Khan’s claims as a "sordid story", Mr Straker added that he refused to accept any of Mr Aehmed’s evidence "unless it is either entirely uncontroversial or independently corroborated".
A further claim made in court by Coun Khan, that Coun Afzal’s supporters had burnt out a Range Rover belonging to one of Mr Aehmed’s supporters, was described by Mr Straker as an "unpleasant, unsupported and unsubstantiated assertion".
He found it odd that Coun Khan, who is a barrister, did not report serious matters including an alleged attempt to pervert the course of justice to the police.
West Midlands Liberal Democrats immediately launched an investigation into the conduct of Mr Aehmed and Coun Khan.
Paul Tilsley, leader of the council Lib Dem group and deputy council leader, said Coun Khan would remain a cabinet member and the party’s candidate in Aston for next month’s city elections.
Coun Tilsley added: "He has not been found guilty of any crime. There is no reason why he should not be a candidate.
"The inquiry will look at all respects of this and take an independent view."
In a report to the High Court, dismissing the petition, Mr Straker will say: "An unwarranted attempt was made by Mr Aehmed and Ayoub Khan to suggest that Coun Afzal was seeking illegitimately to influence the pursuit of the case."
Labour said last night it would refer Mr Straker’s comments to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a view to bringing criminal charges against Mr Aehmed and Coun Khan. In Mr Aehmed’s case for falsely claiming disability benefit, and in Coun Khan’s case for misleading the court.
Sir Albert Bore, leader of the Labour group on the city council, called on the Liberal Democrats to sack Coun Khan as the party’s candidate in Aston.
"The Commissioner has been very strong in his condemnation of Ayoub Khan," Sir Albert said. "The Liberal Democrat Party should seriously consider whether Khan is a person who should represent the city at cabinet level."
Originally selected in 2002 as a Labour candidate for Aston, Mr Aehmed was dropped by the party when he failed to give satisfactory answers about disability grant applications.
He joined the Liberal Democrats and was selected as Aston candidate for the 2007 election, in which he came third trailling Coun Afzal by more than 600 votes.
Describing Mr Aehmed as a "very poor witness", Mr Straker said no medical evidence had been produced in court to substantiate his disability grant or his claim that for several months in 1993 he was drifiting in and out of consciousness.
A series of boxes ticked on one of the forms indicated that Mr Aehmed had difficulty in going outside, moving around, taking a bath, climbing the stairs, sitting down and using the toilet.
Mr Straker said: "It was being recorded that the Petitioner was, effectively, helpless. This, I consider, was never the position.
"If matters were so bad why do the medical records not record such as the position? How is it that the Petitioner now appears healthy with there being credible evidence that at all material times he was an active man anxious to play a role in community affairs?"
Mr Aehmed said he did not accept the decision and hoped to launch an appeal. He had every intention to continue as a Liberal Democrat candidate.
Further medical evidence to support his case was not presented because it had been lost by the health authority, he said.
He added: "This is a good example of a judge who has no understanding of the community about which he judges. He has reached a decision which no decent person in Aston will agree with."
> Lib Dem inaction will shame Birmingham - Birmingham Post Editor's blog >