Men in gay sex parties case escape sentences

SEVEN men who became the focus of an international campaign after they were prosecuted for taking part in private sex parties escaped prison sentences yesterday at Bolton Crown Court.

Judge Michael Lever, QC, had warned that he might jail at least some of the so-called Bolton Seven, who were found guilty of buggery and gross indecency at a trial last month.

But after more than three hours of defence submissions in mitigation, the judge handed out suspended sentences to two of the men, and probation and community service orders to the rest.

The defendants, who had received letters of support from two bishops and from human rights groups around the world, were prosecuted after police seized video tapes on which they had recorded the parties for their own amusement.

Under the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, sex between men is illegal if more than two people are present. The men faced prison sentences of up to five years, and Amnesty International planned to adopt them as prisoners of conscience if they were jailed.

Gay campaigners have condemned the law as discriminatory, in that it penalises private sexual behaviour between consenting adults. All the Bolton men were over the age of consent, except one who was just under 18, and all were willing participants.

Outside court yesterday, the men issued a statement in which they condemned the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue the case.

"Regardless of the sentence, the trial has had a ruinous effect on our lives," they said, adding that the "cruel resuscitation" of an obscure section of the Act showed "callous insensitivity.

"One of the positive consequences of this bitter experience is that a new sense of outrage and urgency has been injected into the law reform movement, and the demand for a comprehensive review of our sex laws may well now become irresistible," the men said.

Before passing sentence, the judge referred to numerous letters that he had received asking him to show clemency. He said he accepted that Terry Connell, 55, the oldest defendant, was "a perfectly respectable and decent man" who had "led an exemplary life".

Ben Emmerson, a defence barrister, argued in mitigation that the prosecutions were a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and that, although the Convention had not yet been incorporated into English law, the judge was obliged to take account of it.

Mr Emmerson also said publicity about the trial had led to several of the men being assaulted and to firebomb attacks on their homes.

Sources close to the case say that police originally raided the house of one defendant, Norman Williams, in the mistaken belief that he was part of a paedophile ring.

It has emerged that Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, endorsed the decision to prosecute the men. In a letter to Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton South-East, Dame Barbara said the prosecution was in the public interest.

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