Europe gives S&M stamp of disapproval

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Sado-masochism practised in private and causing no serious injury was officially criminalised yesterday in a unanimous ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

To condemnation by civil liberties and gay rights campaigners, the court saidthat Britain was justified in jailing three men, Anthony Brown, Roland Jaggard and Colin Laskey - who has since died - for inflicting pain on each other for sexual pleasure.

They were among 16 homosexual men rounded up in the "Operation Spanner" crackdown after videos of their sado-masochistic sessions fell into police hands. Only the three took their appeals to the House of Lords and then to Strasbourg.

Nearly 50 homosexual men had taken part in the sex acts, involving the use of hot wax, sandpaper, fish hooks and needles on each other's genitals, ritualistic beatings with spiked belts, stinging nettles and cat-o'-nine- tails, and branding.

Invoking an exception to article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to respect for family life, the Strasbourg judges ruled that the United Kingdom was "unquestionably entitled ... to seek to regulate through the operation of the criminal law activities which involve the infliction of physical harm, whether the activities occur in the course of sexual conduct or otherwise".

Mr Jaggard, 50, from Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, and Mr Brown, 62, from Yardley, Birmingham, suggested yesterday that "Despite protestations to the contrary it has always been clear to us from the statements of English judiciary, at all stages from the Old Bailey to the House of Lords, that as our case involved homosexuals we were essentially guilty".

They invoked a later case when a man who branded his initials on his wife's backside had his conviction quashed on appeal because they were a happily married couple.

But the Strasbourg court dismissed the men's claims that they were victimised for being homosexuals and rejected their argument that behaviour involving private morality was none of the state's business. "It is evident that the applicants' activities involved a significant degree of injury or wounding which could not be characterised as trifling or transient," the judges said.

Rights campaigners said the ruling violated the right to privacy. John Wadham, director of the civil-rights group Liberty and one of the lawyers in the case, said: "Consent forms a defence to assault in sports, medical operations, ear-piercing, religious flagellation and many other practices which are not to everyone's taste. The police should be out catching real criminals, not worrying about what other people get up to in bed." Peter Tatchell, of the gay- rights group OutRage! said that the ruling violated the right to privacy.