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UK government declines to pardon Alan Turing (jgc.org)
166 points by jgrahamc on Feb 6, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

Whilst my gut reaction would be that this is the wrong decision, this - "However, the law at the time required a prosecution and, as such, long-standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than trying to alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right, ensure instead that we never again return to those times." - is actually a rational and convincing response.

What justice requires is that unjust, unfair and inhumane laws and punishments be struck down and that the people who suffered them unjustly be exonerated and pardoned - even if it comes long after the fact.

To announce today that Turing was unjustly convicted under a ridiculous law and that he will be posthumously pardoned is not to alter the historical context but to assert that the law is a living thing and that our conception of justice evolves over time.

Edit - it sounds like the Protection of Freedoms bill does just this. http://blog.jgc.org/2011/11/why-im-not-supporting-campaign-f...

There is an important philosophy of law, the name of which annoyingly escapes me, that basically says if you enact a law it should not be allowed to apply to actions before it was passed.

The reason why you avoid it is because you criminalize actions that when were taking place the person had no reasonable expectation that it was illegal, you are essentially changing the rules of the game after it has been played.

As much as we want to change the past, we never can. So it's dangerous to consider changing an illegal act in the past into a legal one as you open the doors to the idea that you can change a legal act in the past into an illegal one. Today's 'justice' being used to convict yesterdays normality.

You're looking for "ex post facto law": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_post_facto_law

"In the United States, the federal government is prohibited from passing ex post facto laws by clause 3 of Article I, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution and the states are prohibited from the same by clause 1 of Article I, section 10. This is one of the very few restrictions that the United States Constitution made to both the power of the federal and state governments prior to the Fourteenth Amendment. "

"In the United Kingdom, ex post facto laws are frowned upon, but are permitted by virtue of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty."

IANAL but it seems to me that pardoning someone after the fact for being found guilty of breaking an unjust law is not the same, legally or ethically, as convicting someone after the fact for committing an act that is later determined to be a crime.

I think the phrase you're looking for is ex post facto.

That seems to be a bit of a slippery slope argument--just because we're willing to exonerate people convicted under laws that are now deemed unfair does not imply we are willing to convict people for old transgressions of a new law.

Agreed. This is Part 2 of Article 11 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 15 paragraph 1 states:

> If, subsequent to the commission of the offence, provision is made by law for the imposition of the lighter penalty, the offender shall benefit thereby.

So while punishing or increasing the punishment for an act in the past is illegal, making the punishment lighter does apply retroactively.


Now, I have no idea of how pertinent this particular treaty is (I know little about law), but at the very least it shows some consensus that lightening a punishment retroactively is not only allowable but also necessary.

That would be like admitting a clear mistake, whereas this reaction is pretty far from such admission, having as excuse the "historical context".

Not so: Gordon Brown's letter admits and apologises for the mistake that was made.

During the Nazi regime in Germany, lots of people were sentenced to death under a jurisdiction that today is considered inhumane and criminal (and was by other nations at the time, too). I'm not convinced by the whole "...but it was the law at that time!" rationale.

(That said, and before anyone unfairly cites Godwin's law, I'm of course not saying that the current British government compares in any way to the Nazi dictatorship.)

I think the point that the government is making here is not "...but it was the law at that time!" but rather "we will let our mistakes of the past stand, and rather than hide from them we will learn from them". There is perhaps the danger that by 'fixing' the past you can then forget about it.

I think they just refuse to admit a mistake by placing the blame on the historical context.

They have already issued a full apology (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/gordon-brown/617011...) which contains the following - "While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair, and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted, as he was convicted, under homophobic laws, were treated terribly."

I must say that the leading "While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time" qualification leaves a particularly unpleasant taste in my mouth. I am forced to agree with bad_user in this case.

I think that qualification is actually important: it was the law that was unjust, not just society. A government apology should acknowledge that it was the government that caused the problem there, not some random vigilantes. The full problem was not just that he was treated horribly, but that his treatment was not only legal but also actively enforced by the law.

While I concede it is possible that was the intent of that line, I think there could have certainly been a better way of conveying that rather point. Particularly, they could have plainly stated "the law itself was unjust", and dropped that weird "While...".

Agreed. There's been many atrocious things done in the past by almost every country, and it would be very simple to whitewash everything out of existence with pardons, however it doesn't change what happened or what resulted from it.

It's better to stand by your mistakes than to pretend they never happened.

It would not be, in any sense, a "whitewash", actually the reverse. A whitewash covers up mistakes. This would be an acknowledgement that the laws of the time were injust.

We have had an unequivocal apology, made on national television by the Prime Minister himself, saying that the conviction was "horrifying" and "utterly unfair". I think that counts as "an acknowledgement that the laws of the time were injust".

A pardon is a separate and distinct legal action, which is unwarranted.

Sure. But warranted or unwarranted, it's anything but a whitewash.

It is a whitewash. The treatment of the homosexual community at that time was horrendous. Pardoning his act because it's non-objectional today is stupid. Why not pardon all the Jews of the pogroms for having the wrong ethnicity.

It's whitewashing because the act of doing it is more offensive than simply leaving it as is. Pardoning Turing would be pardoning him for being gay and makes no correction for the horrendous treatment he received, which was the point of the apology.

An apology is what Turing deserved. A pardon is an insult to his memory.

I'm sorry, but you simply don't understand the meaning of the word "whitewash" http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/whitewash. You don't "whitewash" something by publicly apologizing for it or by pardoning someone who has been wronged. That's almost exactly the opposite of what the word "whitewash" actually means. When you "whitewash" something you DENY that it happened or try and BURY it.

During the Nazi regime in Germany, lots of people were sentenced to death under a jurisdiction that today is considered inhumane and criminal (and was by other nations at the time, too).

Same applies to many of those who have been prosecuted under Stalin's rule. Still, there was a process called "political rehabilitation", for lack of better term, which essentially means that their sentences were declared void and their rights were restored. For hundreds of thousands, of course, posthumously.


I'm of course not saying that the current British government compares in any way to the Nazi dictatorship.

Well, Godwin's law be damned, it compares in at least several ways. The Nazi dictatorship was just one of many unjust regimes in the past. No reason why we cannot compare it to others, past or present. They did kill millions of jews, communists, gypsies and gays in concentration camps, but lots of other regimes have killed millions of people too.

Now, as to how the British government compares to the Nazi dictatorship. Well, they have even worse mass surveillance program (CCTV) that the Nazi's had. And the British had invaded and enslaved more countries during their colonial era than Germany ever did. And they are responsible for lots of subsequent wars in their old colonies, since they used "divide and conquer" tactics (establishing artificial buffer states, playing parts of the population against the other, et al) to ensure continued dependance and instability after de-colonizing them (from India-Pakistan, to Israel-Palestine, to Ethiopia-Eritrea, to Cyprus-Turkey, the list goes on).

that's the advantage of winning the war.

anyway, the whole concept of law today is based on that idea. law exists at a place, at a time. There are lots of cases that end up like that. "it was NOT a crime then, so even if it is a crime today, we can't do anything".

and on the other way around, by Ex post facto it would be pretty possible to aggravate some other charge based on old laws that applied at the time that today are considered crazy for some reason. It cannot be brought to prosecute gays today just because most countries limit ex post facto for 'rights' acquired later. but for anything else, it's fair game.


People misunderstand godwin's law. Godwin was right that the nazis would eventually come up- as they did.

But the people who say that "anyone who brings up the nazis is wrong" are people pushing a revisionist view of history that denies the holocaust-- because they assert that nazi germany was an aberration, that somehow, magically, has nothing to do with the rest of the world or history, and thus any reference to it is tantamount to simply calling someone a nazi.

As you showed in your post, it is quite possible to make a comparison to Nazi Germany without engaging in name calling, or being irrational.

Thus, Godwins actual law does apply -- you made the reference, and thus Godwin is satisfied (since the likelihood approaches one.)

But the fake "Godwin's law" that people cite is also disproven-- your reference is accurate and astute.

The gist of the issue is that a pardon would have opened the legal gates to compensation claims from other victims. Turing was used as a wedge here.

Although I'm not generally a fan of our "compensation culture" I think this may be a case where people deserve some compensation - if there are people out there who, before 1967, had their lives ruined by the imposition of a fundamentally stupid and oppressive law then maybe we do owe them all an apology and some hard cash.

Might be a deterrent to imposing new oppressive laws, although I seriously doubt it.

> maybe we do owe them all an apology and some hard cash.

I would think this is a terrible idea. For example, my government might actually take it into its head to ask (yet again) that we get the Kohinoor diamond back :)

And why should not a stolen diamond be returned by the colonial thieves that took it?

(btw, I'm not an Indian)

Um, no argument either way - I just believe a lump of crystalline carbon can collect dust equally well in one museum as another.

More seriously, given that pretty much all of history is rife with examples of transfer of wealth from one place to another. it's better to (try to) not make the same mistake again, rather than fixing the past.

Then why did the British government apologise for their part in the slave trade? It was not illegal or immoral (from the Brits point of view anyway) at that time...

I dispute that the law "requires" prosecution.

Actually it's a political response.

Nothing to do with justice. Justice is supposed to be ABOVE the law, and especially above an abolished law.

The main problem that they wanted to prevent is a backslash of complaints, arguments, lawsuits and demands for similar apologies from people that the government had done wrong in the past according to other, similar or not, abolished laws. Remember, this is the UK, an ex colonial power that has royally (pun intended) f*d whole countries and peoples up in the past century.

That's extremely interesting. Turing is dead and can't accept an apology, so an apology is completely useless. But a pardon actually clears his name. Given the reasoning "The conviction was correct", it makes the apology hollow even if he was still alive.

At this point in history, an apology and pardon would slightly clear the name of the Crown from a legacy as a bigoted hateful illegitimate government that tramples on rights and whose amoral so-called "laws" tortured a good man until he gave in to suicide.

By refusing to do so, the Crown can not harm Turing whose legacy is assured by history. They only harm themselves, and quite frankly, it is their choice to do so.

It is Turing whose pardon they must secure. Not vice versa. As he is deceased, that opportunity is past and their crimes remain both unforgiven and unforgivable.

"an apology and pardon would slightly clear the name of the Crown."

I think is is the same reason that they declined to issue the pardon. The ministers didn't feel it was appropriate to try and retroactively whitewash the actions of the crown and that it should continue to bear a stain for those actions.

Thanks, that's very interesting. If so, then it's a reasonable and almost noble acceptance of responsibility.

The question is whether there is any consistent way in which to deal with the "mistakes" of past governments. One thing is for sure, if you pardon Alan Turing, you must pardon everyone who committed that "crime" and other "crimes" that are now human rights. Being a great scientist cannot be what buys you the right to be gay.

What about all the other absurd laws of the past, many of which still shape the present? Large parts of UK land are still owned by the aristocracy. Can her Majesty's government even pretend to right past wrongs when the monarchy itself is a symbol of unspeakable crimes against humanity?

It is interesting to note how the main point behind the resolution not to pardon Turing is exactly the same point that, in other legislations, is used to pardon people sentenced under no-longer-actual laws.

Italian case (also present in many other civil law jurisdictions): you are sentenced in 2012 for sharing a music file. You are fined and jailed because so says the law in 2012. 2020, an act is passed that says that sharing a music file is no longer felony. fifteen days after the day that act has been enacted you can go to a court and say "ehi, I was just ahead of the time, clean my criminal records" and you will instantly get your records cleaned with a "il fatto non è previsto dalla legge come reato" sentence ("because that actions is no longer seen as a criminal offence under the current law"). In some rare cases you can also get money back from the state.

In the recent times this principle has been used to provide blanket pardon for things that once were felonies such as having or providing an abort, divorcing (abroad), opposing to draft, hiding jews from the police... You know, these things that change over time.

To a U.S. observer, the U.K. (or maybe just the monarchy?) has a very peculiar notion of what "pardoning" (even ceremonially) means, or is meant to accomplish.

In the U.S., many (Presidential) pardons are used for crimes that everyone agrees were indeed committed, and even crimes for which we fully intend to continue prosecuting other people in the future!

The UK concept of a pardon is the same as yours. Historically it was used in much the same way as your Presidential pardons are (i.e. to get friends of the ruling elite out of prison or spare them the gallows).

In modern times we've pardoned people who we consider to be wrongly executed (including all soldiers executed for cowardice in the First World War) and people who have been wrongly executed for other crimes.

However, there is still a general principle that a pardon doesn't remove the original conviction but instead removes the punishment that was applied. So in the case of a miscarriage of justice there is a tendency to allow the conviction to be quashed by an appeal court rather than pardon someone (unless time is of the essence e.g. they are close to death and the appeal would take too long).

This is getting really interesting.

Pardons are indeed based on the idea of forgiveness. So, to issue a pardon would be to say that the person committed a crime and needed to be forgiven. Thus, it is possible a pardon may be inappropriate as it would send the wrong message.

It sounds like Italy has a different concept available, where things no longer considered crimes are no longer considered crimes, rather than sins that must be forgiven. I wonder if the same sort of principle is possible at all under English law.

Laws which retroactively criminalise behaviour are expressly forbidden under Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights [1] but merely ex post facto law (which may presumably make something legal retroactively) is merely "frowned upon" in the UK [2], because the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty (i.e. parliament can do what it likes) takes precedence.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_7_of_the_European_Conve...

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ex_post_facto_law#United_Kingdo...

Doesn't it feel so unfair that people do something at a time because they don't think it's morally wrong, but it is illegal, so they get persecuted or arrested for years and suffer for it, but later society decides that what he and others did wasn't actually illegal?

In a way, they are the heroes or martyrs that that were indeed ahead of time and led to the society's change of heart regarding a certain law. Who knows how many laws we still have that 20-30 years were from now we'll just consider as stupid, irrational laws that shouldn't have existed.

How about the reverse, people going unpunished for stuff we don't consider a crime, but then 20-50-100 years later it's considered one? You know, like owning a slave.

> and you will instantly get your records cleaned

Which so far as I can tell is what the disregard and deletion process that jgc describes in http://blog.jgc.org/2011/11/why-im-not-supporting-campaign-f... will achieve.

A pardon is not the same thing. Nothing to see here, move long :)

The difference here is that the "disregard and deletion process" is an ad-hoc mechanism put in place by an ordinary act that can be later repelled.

In many legislation such a favor rei mechanism is a funding principle and a tenet of law.

It's interesting to read the author's reasoning on why they don't support a pardon ( http://blog.jgc.org/2011/11/why-im-not-supporting-campaign-f... )

One reason is that there are other people, not just Alan Turing, who were convicted under this law, and are still living. They had a criminal record. However a new Act essentially deletes the criminal conviction for that part, so those people no longer have a criminal record.

Under Rehabilitation of Offenders act do those criminal convictions (surely 'spent' now) have any affect?

Do they make it harder for people to travel to, eg, US ("Moral Turpitude" on visa waiver)? Do they count for job applications?

Certainly many people had their lives destroyed, and lived in fear. Ignorance and bigotry isn't dead either.

A deeper problem with pardoning a man who's been dead for almost 60 years is that it's a wholly empty gesture. It lets various campaigners grandstandingly "champion" a cause that everyone is behind, without getting their fingers dirty in actual politics. There are plenty of issues to get into if you want to champion gay rights - unfortunately, most of them requires you to take a position that will have people on the other side of it. Ick.

It's the same deal with being anti-nazi. Yeah, big deal, >99% of the worlds population has been with you for 70 years.

It makes me wonder who they'll be pardoning in 50 years time from now. Assange, Manning, David Kelly, McKinnon etc.

There's no excuse to get it wrong in the first place and I'm sure for the people concerned, a pardon is probably virtually irrelevant by the time they have issued it. Either the people are dead or their life is wrecked.

It makes me wonder who they'll be pardoning in 50 years time from now. Assange, Manning, David Kelly, McKinnon etc.

You're assuming that history is a linear ascent toward ever higher morality. What if it goes the other way?

That's a very fair point. Thinking about it, the morality inclines for a bit after a war, then declines as another appears. Well that's my perception anyway.

They can't pardon David Kelly. He wasn't ever charged with anything, much less convicted, was he?

Not every part of the government operates under the same rules as us. If they don't want someone around, they bully them to suicide or kill them (opinions are open as to what happened there). Then they run a public inquiry, ironically headed by school chums of the ruling class to shut people up about it.

Even accepting what you say, having been convicted of a crime is a necessary prerequisite for receiving a pardon.

This isn't a conspiracy theory site. For the sake of polite conversation this isn't the place to start making such claims.

Previous discussion on this subject (two years ago): http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1073405

No but the elements of the press that hounded him have some repsonsability for his suicide as arguably do his employers for failing in thier duty of care

Well, given the response, presumably they won't be pardoning any of them...?

While I think that Turing's prosecution was absurd and inhumane, I'm not sure it's an easy step to conclude that he should be retroactively pardoned now that the relevant laws have changed.

To do so would be to accept that there is no definitive law at any present moment, and run the risk that individuals could be convicted in the future for activities which were perfectly legal at the time. This could have dire implications for both justice and personal liberty.

Your conclusion does not hold: making something retroactively legal is vastly different than making something retroactively illegal. The first happens all the time and is the entire point of a full pardon. In the US the latter is unconstitutional and the former explicitly constitutional.

Besides which, your approach assumes the law that allows for chemical castration because he was gay was a legitimate application of state power. I maintain that it was not.

Exactly. The law in any sufficiently just system is always asymmetric with respect to guilt and innocence, in innocence's favour. Retroactive action should be no difference.

> ... making something retroactively legal is vastly different than making something retroactively illegal.

I can see the difference. But the similarity is (as I pointed out) that accepting either of them makes the case for the other stronger by removing a barrier - that barrier being the presumption that the law is fixed at a particular point in time.

> The first happens all the time and is the entire point of a full pardon.

I can't think of any examples of illegal acts being made retroactively legal (and certainly not "all the time"). Could you cite some examples for my benefit?

I think you're wrong about what a pardon is. A pardon is a way of publicly acknowledging that a (guilty) individual has fully repaid their debt to society. It's used explicitly to release people who have undoubtedly broken the law from the consequent obligations (i.e. prison/gallows) and is done at the behest of monarchs or their governments.

Pardons are a very thorny issue in general because they do not respect the notion that all individuals should be equal under the law. It would be unfair for a convicted murderer to escape the noose on the whim of a King (for example) while another murderer is left to hang. Similarly, pardoning Turing would not be fair on all the others who suffered under the same laws.

> your approach assumes the law that allows for chemical castration because he was gay was a legitimate application of state power.

I don't understand where you get that from.

On a loosely similar note, many (some?) countries can prosecute their citizens if they break law outside of the country, despite "it" being legal there. So in theory, you can be put to jail for possessing marijuana when visiting Netherlands. The "in theory" is important as there is no one that could report it back to your home country. I believe this exists to prevent from import of polygamy and such, but it's still interesting.

Um, no, you pardon everyone under a wrong law as well as declare the law immoral and invalid.

Let society carry the black eye, not the victim.

That is the most insane reason I have ever heard for not pardoning somebody.

Especially since they did pardon the soldiers who were shot for cowardice during WWI (admitably a little too late to do anything by about 90 years).

I personally don't like all these campaigns which must take up an inordinate amount of time, energy, effort and money to try and somehow right the wrongs of past governments.

I really don't get why a country 'apologises' for past actions - I don't feel any tie whatsoever to the government / laws of the time / my fellow countrymen of years gone by and why me apologising would make any difference

Let people be responsible for their own actions and decisions.

Here's a link to the excellent documentary "Britain's greatest codebreaker" that tells Alan Turing's story. http://documentaryheaven.com/britains-greatest-codebreaker/

Alan Turing is one of my hero's. His conviction was from an earlier, less enlightened time and is a prime example of political expediency over common sense.

The headline is slightly sensationalist because as the article points out, he was given a full, unreserved apology by the British Government in 2009.

While they may have called it 'unreserved', the apology remained reserved in an important part: there was no pardon. 'Disregarding of convictions' is not the same thing as a pardon, it is what it says it is: it is, simply, 'we will no longer take these convictions into account' (and a db admin gets to run a very rare delete command).

A pardon would be recognition that the conviction was in itself wrong, even at the time (the paragraph of law that made sex between men was snuck into a bill of 1885 which dealt with sex crimes relating to young women. It took nearly 75 years to remove).

Even if it is impractical to pardon everyone, pardoning Turing would have made a very public statement alongside the 'Disregarding of convictions'.

I believe the statement would still be worth making and I would go further to include a few others, e.g. Oscar Wilde.

Note also that the bill specifically holds a paragraph to make exactly this kind of pardon possible:

  87 Saving for Royal pardons etc.

  Nothing in section 86 affects any right of Her Majesty, by 
  virtue of Her Royal prerogative or otherwise, to grant a 
  free pardon, to quash any conviction or sentence, or to 
  commute any sentence.

One of your hero's what?

Since the issue at hand involves Turing's homosexuality, there is a tendency to see it in terms of bigotry. But it is not. The real issue is one of morality. The governments persecution of Turing, and other homosexuals, is immoral, because their acts did not harm anyone, and were consensual in nature. However, the governments acts did cause harm and were non-consentual. (Turing didn't consent to be prosecuted, he didn't have a choice.)

The law is not the definer of morality. The law is subject of morality, much in the same way as US laws are subject to the constitution, which is itself also subject to morality.

Thus the persecution of Alan Turing was itself a criminal act, in the eyes of anyone who accept morality (or at least the moral premise that consensual acts among adults that do not harm anyone are moral.)

The failure to pardon him -- that is, the failure to renounce the crime the government committed in the past-- shows the government to have as little regard for morality today as it did then.

This is confirmed by the manifold laws currently in place in that government that persecute people for "crimes" that are not immoral.

For example, the criminalization of drug use.

The thing that trips people up is that they're taught to believe that government is moral. Government is a collection of people, which engages in acts some of which are moral and some of which are immoral.

Since the law in question was immoral, thus enforcing it is a moral crime, and the governments failure to renounce such enforcement via issuing a pardon (and to be honest, paying some appropriate sum to the estate of the man in compensation, with interest) shows the government to be immoral to this day.

If it were a moral government, it would act morally, and remove the conviction while paying compensation for the crime.

And it would do so for every person prosecuted under this law.

Morality changes with time. The laws have been changed to reflect. The UK government is saying that they can't pardon something that at the time was a crime and was prosecuted properly. I don't see that as immoral even if I find the past law immoral.

The are many things considered morally wrong by enough people to make them illegal. Assisted Suicide is an example. If it ever becomes legal, should everyone who was arrested and convicted under the current laws be pardoned? many people today would find that immoral.

Edit: Some in other threads have a raised another good point, what about things that are now considered crimes? Should we retroactively prosecute these people?

Even Martin Luther was pardoned after death ..oh come on now..

Martin Luther founded the movement that led to the modern British church as we know it, so I'm not sure what you think the UK government convicted him of?

In the case that you're confusing Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, MLK was also not convicted by the British government of anything, and as this is a British government policy, I'm a little curious as to what relevance you feel this has on the discussion at hand...

I think that was Henry VIII that set up the COE

It's more complicated than that, but you could do worse than start with:


It would be up to the Pope to pardon Martin Luther as it was Pope Leo who excommunicated him for Heresy in January 1521…

…but lets not get into that—the last thing HN needs is another religious debate alongside those of iOS v Android and Node.js v everything.

Governments are just scared to even slightly question their own actions. If some laws from 1952 were inhuman and oppressive, then what chance of some of the current laws being the same? No way they are going to diminish their power. Never.

Then why did the government posthumously apologise to Turing, describing his treatment as "horrifying" and "utterly unfair"?

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