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Thursday, March 25, 1999 Published at 19:01 GMT


UK Politics

Vindication for UK's first Muslim MP

The first Muslim MP to enter Parliament

When he was elected as the Labour MP for Glasgow Govan at the last election, Mohammad Sarwar made history. He was the first Muslim MP to enter Parliament.

But his joy at becoming an MP did not last long. Within a fortnight Donald Dewar, the new Scottish Secretary, was asking for a police investigation into allegations of bribery and vote-rigging.

By the end of June the 46-year-old self-made millionaire found himself suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Having looked forward to representing not just his constituency but also the UK's Muslim community, he instead became a virtual pariah at Westminster. He was charged with election fraud, perverting the course of justice and breaking election expenses law.


[ image: Badar Islam: Mohammad Sarwar was alleged to have paid him £5,000 to scale back his campaign]
Badar Islam: Mohammad Sarwar was alleged to have paid him £5,000 to scale back his campaign
The charges were the culmination of a series of bitter disputes and rivalries within the Glasgow Labour Party - notorious for its in-fighting - as well as the city's Muslim community.

But the fraud charge, related to the adding of four names to the electoral register, was dropped as the trial entered its seventh week and the election expenses charge fell soon after.

During the nine-week trial the court heard allegations that the MP had broken down in tears the night the News of the World newspaper published allegations he had paid £5,000 to political rival, Badar Islam.

Mr Sarwar's election agent, Margaret Curran, told the High Court in Edinburgh the MP had been in a "catatonic" state. He saw the political career he had worked so hard to establish facing ruin.

A self-made man

Born into a poor family in Pakistan in 1952, he followed his father and uncle to Scotland in 1976, with his wife Parveen.

He worked in the family's shop for 10 years before he and his brother Ramzan started an egg wholesalers which would grow into the United Wholesale cash-and-carry business with an estimated annual turnover of £80 million.


[ image: Mike Watson, Sarwar's bitter rival for the Labour nomination to fight the Glasgow Govan seat]
Mike Watson, Sarwar's bitter rival for the Labour nomination to fight the Glasgow Govan seat
Mr Sarwar, his wife and the four children they by now had moved from a council flat in Maryhill to a Victorian house in upmarket Pollokshields. He became active in local politics, joining Labour in 1984 and becoming a councillor in 1992.

He was a prominent and respected figure within Glasgow's Muslim community, where he had raised funds for the central mosque and was elected as its secretary in 1986.

But it was his involvement in 1996 in bringing home two Glaswegian Asian girls allegedly abducted by their father and forced into arranged marriages in Pakistan, which sparked the controversy that caused his political ambitions to tumble around him soon after his arrival at Westminster.

His success in bringing the girls home was met with a mixed reaction as some Glasgow Muslims felt he had interfered with a private family matter.

Glasgow Labour in-fighting

By this point, in the run-up to the general election, Mr Sarwar was engaged in a selection battle with Glasgow Central MP Mike (now Lord) Watson, whose seat had disappeared in boundary changes. Both men were determined to win the Labour nomination in Govan - home to 5,000 Glasgow Asians, 90% of whom were Muslim.

After an ill-tempered selection battle involving accusation of dirty tricks, Watson won the selection by a single vote. But this was only after 51 of the 540 ballot papers had been disallowed - by one of Mr Watson's scrutineers, on the grounds that the signatures on them appeared not to match those on party application forms.


[ image: He became a virtual pariah at Westminster, but now he is free to rebuild his reputation]
He became a virtual pariah at Westminster, but now he is free to rebuild his reputation
Labour eventually agreed the process was flawed and ordered a second ballot. Watson threatened legal action to prevent this re-match, but Mr Sarwar said he would sue the party if it backed down.

Mr Sarwar won the second ballot by 82 votes after another candidate dropped out and threw her support behind him. Come the election, he beat off a strong campaign by the SNP to win the seat with a majority just short of 3,000.

But just days after his victory he was faced with newspaper headlines claiming he had bribed a rival candidate to scale back their campaign in order to avoid splitting the Asian vote.

The accusations were taken up by police and he was soon suspended by Labour, keen in its first days in office to show zero-tolerance of any alleged wrongdoing.

Now that he has been vindicated by the courts, his next task will be to rebuild his reputation in the Commons.



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