Alan Turing May Receive Pardon After All

Computing pioneer Alan Turing looks likely to receive a posthumous pardon, despite a previous official rejection of the idea. But the process behind the possible pardon has again raised controversy.

We’ve previously covered Turing’s life here at GaS: in short, he not only helped crack the German Enigma encryption (arguably shortening the second world war and saving millions of lives) but was also a key figure in developing programmable computers. He took his own life two years after a conviction for having a sexual relationship with a man (at the time, a crime of “gross indecency”) led to him losing his security clearance.

In 2009, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the way Turing was treated, including being forced to undergo chemical castration to avoid a prison sentence.

Last year the government minister responsible for court issues, Lord McNally, said an official pardon was impossible in Turing’s case. He said that pardons cannot be issued in cases where the person rationally decided to carry out an action they knew to be a crime, even if that crime is later abolished.

Now a member of the House of Lords (the unelected chamber of the British parliament), Lord Sharkey, has introduced the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill which, if passed, would specifically change British law to state that Turing had been pardoned.

It’s a private member’s bill, meaning it hasn’t been introduced by the government itself. Normally such bills stand virtually no chance of becoming law thanks to the way the legislative process works in the United Kingdom, with the government having tight control of the schedule for debating proposed laws.

However, the government says it is prepared to make time for the bill, which runs to just 180 words, if nobody proposes any amendments to it (which would spark a time-consuming review process). The main opposition party has signalled its support for the bill.

There’s no word yet from any politicians planning to oppose the bill, which would likely scupper its chances of becoming law. However, critics outside Parliament say it’s inappropriate to change the law simply to cover one person, and that any pardon in these circumstances should apply to all men convicted for having homosexual relationships.

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