Lawyers' arguments fail to convince PM

Leading QCs claim precedents exist for clemency plea by Downing Street. Heather Mills reports.
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The Independent Online
Downing Street remained adamant last night that it would not intervene to try to save Nick Ingram's life, despite claims from leading QCs and lawyers that there were strong legal and human rights reasons for doing so.

John Major is convinced he has no right to speak out about the US administration of justice.

But Geoffrey Robertson, a leading human rights QC, has already said that the legal advice given to Mr Major was "plainly wrong and incompetent" and called for a full investigation. And yesterday others supported his argument.

Further, Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, made personal pleas on behalf of the only other two Britons to face the death penalty in recent years. But her pleas for clemency for Kevin Barlow and Derrick Gregory - both convicted of heroin trafficking in Malaysia - failed. Kevin Barlow was hanged in 1986 and Gregory was executed three years later.

The Foreign Office said those cases had been looked at on their individual merits and a decision had been taken that a plea for clemency was appropriate. Barlow, 28, had maintained to the gallows that he did not know an Australian he was travelling with was carrying drugs. Both Mrs Thatcher and the Australian Prime Minister intervened - but to no avail.

In the case of Gregory, there was concern that he had a long history of psychiatric care after suffering a brain injury when he was only four. He was said to have been easily influenced and manipulated by dealers. Gregory, 39, went to the gallows clutching a photograph of his eight-year- old daughter.

But lawyers yesterday said there were very different reasons for intervening on behalf of Ingram. There were two rulings - one by seven Law Lords sitting as the Privy Council and one by the European Court of Human Rights - which dictated that Ingram should be reprieved.

In July 1989, the Strasbourg court stopped the UK from extraditing to Virginia in the US a man wanted for a double murder. It said Jens Soering must not be extradited because he would face a "very long period of time spent on death row". Such circumstances amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment.

That ruling was underlined 18 months ago when the Privy Council saved all inmates in Jamaica who had been on death row for five years or more. In a rare constitutional ruling it said that to hold them for so long in the grim conditions of death row before eventually hanging them also amounted to cruel, inhuman treatment. The Law Lords noted that the death penalty in the UK, before its abolition, had always been carried out promptly after sentence - within weeks or, in the event of an appeal to the House of Lords, months. Delays of years were unheard of.

The Indian Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe - both with experience of the death penalty - have adopted similar law. Judges in Zimbabwe said that to hold people so long before executing them "would shock the conscience of the people".

Seul Lehfreund, a human rights adviser for 70 death row inmates in Jamaica, said that with three continents accepting the principle, he was "amazed that the US has not followed suit". Peter Thornton QC said Mr Major had taken the easy path of non-intervention and by not supporting the judges' rulings he was "taking a step backward in constitutional rights".

A Downing Street spokeswoman would not say whether Mr Major had taken fresh advice in the light of the lawyers' claims, but the Government's position had not changed. Ingram had US citizenship and "cannot simply claim UK nationality when its suits him," she said.