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UK police accused of wrongly taking DNA of gay men

Wednesday, January 16, 2013
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LONDON — In 1983, Stephen Close was arrested, jailed and expelled from the British army for having sex with a male squad mate.

Three decades later, police tracked him down to the northern England city of Salford and demanded a sample of his DNA.

Close, now 50 and openly gay, said he was shocked.

Undated image made available Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013 of Stephen Close. In 1983 Close was arrested, jailed, and expelled from of the British army for having sex with a fellow squad mate. Thirty years later, police in the English city of Manchester tracked him down and demanded that he give up a sample of his DNA. Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell says Close is one of three gay men convicted under Britain’s now-defunct indecency law who have been ordered to supply their genetic material to police. AP Photo

Stephen Close, in an undated photo.
AP Photo.

“I was horrified that after all these years they suddenly decided to bring this up again,” Close said in a telephone interview from Salford, 205 miles (330 kilometers) north of London.

While it is not illegal in the U.K. to collect genetic material from adults, Britain’s DNA database — one of the largest in the world, with some 6 million samples — has long been a magnet for controversy. Human rights advocate Peter Tatchell says gay men convicted years ago under Britain’s now-defunct gross indecency law may have had their rights violated recently by British police who ordered them to submit their genetic material to the database.

“It is absolutely wrong to lump a consenting, victimless offense like ‘gross indecency’ with rape and child sex abuse,” Tatchell told The Associated Press.

Europe’s top human rights court in 2008 struck down a British law that allowed the government to store DNA and fingerprints from people with no criminal record. But in 2011, a new law allowed police to collect DNA from offenders who had been convicted of serious offenses before the DNA database was created in 1995.

Amanda Cooper of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ DNA database program said police forces were told that “certain sexual offences, such as gross indecency and buggery, should not have a DNA sample taken on the grounds of a sole conviction.”

In Close’s case, he was first convicted of a gross indecency charge and later theft.

The “gross indecency” law dates back to 1885, and has been used to persecute thousands of English homosexuals, including playwright Oscar Wilde, who spent two years in prison after a trial in 1895, and World War II code breaker Alan Turing, who committed suicide after being convicted in 1952.

Although England decriminalized homosexuality in 1967, elements of the indecency legislation remained in place until 2003 — including anti-gay restrictions relating to the age of consent, the military, and sex under various circumstances.

Manchester police have apologized to Close, telling him his DNA sample will be destroyed. They have also promised a review of the some 850 DNA samples they’ve collected since 2011 for people with old convictions.

“In the case of Mr. Close, our request was made without proper consideration of all the facts and once again for that I apologize,” Manchester Deputy Chief Constable Ian Hopkins told the AP on Wednesday.

In the city of Newcastle, a 44-year-old businessman also received a similar request for his DNA. Speaking via telephone, the man described how, more than two decades ago, he’d been arrested and fined after meeting someone for sex in a public toilet. The businessman, who asked that his name be withheld for privacy reasons, said he still has scars on his wrists from his attempt to commit suicide following the arrest.

“This whole thing has brought all this back up,” he said. “I’ve moved on from my life. I’m a businessman now. I’ve been a relationship for more than 10 years now. It’s like someone’s put a bomb under me.”

Northumbria police, who are responsible for Newcastle, denied that they targeted the man because of his sexuality. The force declined, however, to say whether it would destroy his DNA sample.

The force did say it would launch a review of individual cases and would be “looking closely” at the circumstances of each request for DNA, stating that no one would be contacted “solely based on their sexuality.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers said Wednesday it would re-issue guidance to police forces on taking DNA samples.

Britain’s Home Office, the ministry which governs police, also said the now-defunct indecency laws need to be revisited.

“It is unacceptable that homosexual men have been living for decades with criminal records for consensual sex,” the Home Office said in a statement Wednesday.

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