Special Report: How police investigated vote rigging offences

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THE conviction of former city mayor Raja Akhtar and ex-councillor Abdul Razaq brings to an end a massive police investigation which has seen six men convicted of electoral fraud in the past six months.

THE conviction of former city mayor Raja Akhtar and ex-councillor Abdul Razaq brings to an end a massive police investigation which has seen six men convicted of electoral fraud in the past six months.Operation Hooper has involved four years of work by a core team of Cambridgeshire detectives who trawled through more than 11,000 electoral documents and interviewed nearly 1,200 witnesses.

The 1 million investigation began in June 2004 after Peterborough City Council began receiving complaints from people who had arrived at polling stations to vote in the local elections, only to be told their ballots had already been cast by post.

The vast majority of complaints came from the city's Central ward, where electoral records showed the number of postal votes was far higher than in any other area.

In particular, the number of postal votes sent to away addresses – addresses other than voters' homes – was a cause for concern.

A total of 591 away address applications were made in the Central ward – more than 13 times higher than the next largest figure of just 44 in Paston.

Operation Hooper began with the seizure of thousands of electoral documents from the city council, and after the papers were painstakingly analysed by forensics officers and a handwriting expert, six suspects were identified.

Detective Sergeant Shaun Sutton, the deputy senior investigation officer in the case, said: "The initial stages of the investigation took many months, and from the analysis of the documents, we could see there were a number which contained the same handwriting style.

"This then led us to the six people who were to become the subject of the inquiry, and it was only then that the full scope of the investigation became apparent."

Of the nine candidates who stood for election in the Central ward at the June 2004 election, five were brought before the courts in connection with illegal activity, including two of the three successful candidates.

Despite being ousted at the election, Mohammed Choudhary, who became Peterborough's first Asian mayor in 1996, was convicted of four counts of forgery following a four-month trial which concluded in February.

He was sentenced to nine months in jail in April, though he has since been released.

Labour candidate Maqbool Hussein and party aide Tariq Mahmood were jailed alongside Choudhary after being convicted at the same trial.

Mahmood, who was found guilty of 14 counts of forgery, was given a 15-month jail sentence and is still in prison, while Hussein was given a three-month term after being found guilty of four counts of forgery.

Former mayor Akhtar was found guilty of one count of forgery on Friday, while fellow Conservative candidate Razaq was convicted of six charges the previous day.

Both won their seats in the 1994 election.

Failed Tory candidate Mohammed Khaliq was due to be tried alongside Akhtar and Razaq, but pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery on the day the month-long trial was due to start.

All three have been told by Judge Alasdair Daroch that a jail term is likely when they are sentenced later in the year.Speaking to The Evening Telegraph at the conclusion of the latest trial, Det Sgt Sutton said the mammoth investigation, which cost an estimated 1 million, had been "complex and protracted" from the beginning.

He was part of a core team of four detectives, led by acting Detective Chief Inspector Ian Tandy and including Detective Constables Skip Brooks and Laura Harrison, which brought both cases to court.

He said: "It has been a phenomenal task for all of us to get the case to this stage. It was a significant challenge and required a huge effort from us all."

He added that the sheer scale of the investigation was entirely justified because at its root was the protection of one of the most fundamental rights we enjoy as a democratic nation.

"It is about a person's democratic right to be able to vote," he said.

"It is an individual's choice to vote, regardless of where they are from in society and that should never be taken away from them.

"It is important we make that extra effort to make sure people's right to vote without interference is protected.

"I think for people in the community, the message from this case is very clear: electoral fraud is taken extremely seriously by police.

"I hope the investigation has focused people to think very carefully before they consider doing something like this in future."