U.K. police accused of wrongly taking DNA of gay men

LONDON (AP) — 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 because of that conviction.

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

“I was horrified that after all these years they suddenly decided to bring this up again,” Mr. Close said in a telephone interview from Salford, 205 miles 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 — long has 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,” Mr. Tatchell told The Associated Press.

Mr. Tatchell said he had documented the cases of four gay men in London, Salford, Northumbria and the West Midlands who had been mistreated this way.

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 offenses, such as gross indecency and buggery, should not have a DNA sample taken on the grounds of a sole conviction.”

In Mr. 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 Mr. Close, telling him his DNA sample will be destroyed. They also have 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.

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