FIVE Bradford men, including two former councillors, were jailed today for their parts in a failed postal votes scam aimed at getting a Conservative Party candidate elected in the 2005 general election.
A judge heard that a newspaper investigation and police inquiry unearthed a plot to try to get Tory candidate Haroon Rashid elected in the marginal Bradford West seat using hundreds of fraudulent postal vote applications.
Leeds Crown Court was told detectives examined about 900 suspicious forms - many from people who did not exist or had no idea an application had been made on their behalf.
The plot was foiled before the conspirators had the chance to convert the applications into votes and, in the end, Mr Rashid was defeated by sitting Labour MP Marsha Singh who won with a majority of more than 3,000.
Prosecutors said that if the press had not intervened in May 2005, "the plan may well have been successful".
Today former Bradford city councillor Jamshed Khan, 65, of Russell Street, Bradford; another former councillor Reis Khan, 40, of Whetley Hill, Bradford; Mohammed Sultan, 52, of Toller Lane, Bradford and Mohammed Rafiq, 70, of Cecil Avenue, Bradford, were each jailed for 21 months for their part in the conspiracy.
All four denied a charge of conspiring to defraud the electoral registration officer of Bradford City Council but were found guilty at a trial earlier this year.
Another defendant, Alyas Khan, 52, of Hilton Road, Bradford, admitted the offence and was jailed for 11 months.
Electoral Commission chairwoman Jenny Watson said: "We welcome the sentences given to the five men involved in the Bradford fraudulent registration case. Electoral fraud is a crime and, rightly, is taken seriously by the police, courts and all those involved in running elections."
The court was told that up to 50 different people were involved in forging the applications although many have not been identified and others have not been brought to court.
Judge Robert Bartfield told the defendants: "To that extent, I can understand if some of you feel you are taking the entire responsibility for what was a much larger enterprise."
The court heard that Rafiq even got his teenage daughter to help him fill out some of the 114 postal vote applications he was found to have forged.
Prosecutor Mark Ainsworth told the judge: "The ultimate goal for these conspiritors was clear.
"This was a well-organised and determined effort to subvert the democratic process in a parliamentary election."
Mr Ainsworth said it was only newspaper coverage and the police investigation which stopped the men turning the applications into votes.
He said: "That, we say, prevented these conspirators from harvesting all the votes that they had lined up.
"If this fraud had not been detected, the plan may well have been successful."
Mr Ainsworth told the court the scam operated in a number of different ways.
Some of it involved registering people to vote who did not exist. In other cases, it involved applying for votes for real people but without their knowledge.
One way this was done was by using multiple-occupation homes controlled by conspirators with communal postal systems.
The judge said part of the plot involved attempting to "harvest" the votes of those "unfamiliar or uninvolved in the British electoral process".
Sentencing the five men, Judge Bartfield told them he had reduced their sentences considerably due to the severe medical conditions each is suffering from and the extreme delay which had been involved in their cases.
The court heard the men were arrested in 2005 and, in the meantime, two trials began but had to be stopped.
The third trial finished in July with the four convictions.
Earlier in the process, the candidate Mr Rashid was acquitted of the charge of conspiracy to defraud on the orders of the judge.
The court heard details about three of the five defendants' connections with the Conservative Party.
As well as the two former Tory councillors, Alyas Khan was an officer with the party. But the two other defendants - Sultan and Rafiq - were not political activists, the judge was told.
Judge Bartfield told the court his understanding was that new postal voting procedures made this kind of fraud much more difficult to carry out.
He said there appeared to be evidence of this if the number of fraud cases linked to the 2005 general election is compared with this year's poll, in which such offences were "rare".
Some of the defendants wiped away tears as they left the dock to begin their prison sentences.
Many members of their families who packed the court were also crying.
The judge adjourned the case to a date to be fixed for questions of costs to be decided. Mr Ainsworth put the cost of prosecuting the case, not including the two aborted trials, at about 65,500.
A West Yorkshire Police spokeswoman said: "Election fraud has the potential to undermine confidence in the democratic process.
"Bradford City Council electoral unit raised concerns and a full and lengthy investigation was undertaken by West Yorkshire Police.
"Both Bradford Council and the returning officer work in close liaison with the police in regard to any allegations surrounding elections and together we are committed to ensuring that all elections are conducted fairly and impartially."
Simon Orme, of the Crown Prosecution Service special crime division, said: "The Crown Prosecution Service takes electoral fraud very seriously indeed. These offences not only attack democracy, but they also have the potential to undermine the public's perception of, and confidence in, the democratic system in this country.
"Alyas Khan, Mohammed Sultan, Mohammed Rafiq, Reis Khan and Jamshed Khan undertook a well-organised attempt to get 'their man' elected by dishonest means. They used a variety of methods to manipulate the postal voting system in the 2005 Parliamentary election for the West Bradford constituency.
"They failed in that attempt, but that in no way reduces the seriousness of their crimes. Their convictions should serve as a warning that the CPS will robustly prosecute those who attack our democratic system in this way and we are determined that anyone involved in these activities will be brought to justice."