The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was in breach of human rights legislation when he increased the prison sentence of two juveniles jailed for murder, the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled yesterday.
The ruling will raise hopes of campaigners fighting to reduce the sentences of two 11-year-old boys serving 15-year sentences for killing the toddler Jamie Bulger, although the two cases are different in law.
Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and has to accept the final rulings of the international court which interprets it.
The Home Office said Mr Howard would fight the ruling, in which the Commission backed the cases of Abed Hussein and Prem Singh. The two had launched separate European legal actions challenging political involvement in the terms of young offenders imprisoned for an indefinite period "at Her Majesty's pleasure."
The Home Secretary will challenge the Commission's findings in the final stage, the European Court of Human Rights. A Home Office spokeswoman said it was too early to say whether the decision would have any relevance to Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, jailed for the Bulger murder.
Lawyers for the two boys have already lodged a case at the Human Rights Commission protesting that Mr Howard should not have the power to alter their sentences. He increased the minimum to 15 years. The trial judge had fixed an eight-year term and the Lord Chief Justice had raised it to 10.
Yesterday's ruling centred on the Home Secretary's powers to keep youngsters in jail after completion of the minimum punitive sentence.
The Commission, in a unanimous recommendation to Human Rights Court judges who will hear the cases of Hussein and Singh next year, say the Convention has been breached because it requires "judicial" and not "executive" control over the release time once the minimum sentence has been served.
Hussein was jailed for murder at the age of 16 in 1978, while Singh was convicted, aged 15, in 1973. In Hussein's case the Parole Board has repeatedly refused his release although the minimum period has expired. Singh was released in 1990 after completing the minimum but was re-arrested for alleged deception and his parole revoked.
Those charges were later dropped but the Parole Board has rejected requests for release. Their lawyers argued that detention at Her Majesty's pleasure was "wholly indeterminate", and should be treated the same as discretionary life sentences for adults. If so, the Human Rights Convention requires judicial rather than executive control after expiry of the punitive sentence. The defendants would then seek parole through a judge.
Government lawyers said detention at Her Majesty's pleasure should be equated with mandatory life terms for adults, not qualifying under the Convention for judicial review.
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