ROME, February 21, 2011 ( – British MPs rebelled this month against a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that prisoners must be given the vote, and some even are speculating whether the issue will result in Britain withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the court. The Strasbourg-based ECHR had ruled that British law is in violation of the rights of convicted criminals in denying them the vote, and ordered the government to change its 140-year-old law by this August.

The issue has galvanized anti-European sentiment both inside and outside of Parliament where earlier this month MPs voted overwhelmingly, with the apparent approval of the Prime Minister, to defy the court. MPs were told, however, that the motion, passed 234 to 22, had no power to reassert British sovereignty on the issue, since Britain was bound by its European agreements that override the authority of Parliament.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes him feel “physically ill,” but said that any investigation into withdrawal from the European Human Rights Convention cannot start until after the 2015 general election.

Cameron was quoted saying that those who have been sent to prison for committing a crime have “given up the right” to vote. “But I’m the prime minister, we’re in a situation where the courts are telling us we are going to be fined unless we change this,” he said.

Meanwhile, the fight has heated up after Robert Greens, a convicted rapist who won a case last year in the ECHR, launched an appeal this week to try to force a change in the law before May’s local elections.

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who is strongly pro-Europe and widely regarded as “soft” on crime, told the BBC that Britain would not pull out of the European Convention.

“We’re a coalition government with a range of opinions and we have a clearly negotiated policy. Only the Greek colonels have ever repudiated the convention on human rights.” Instead, he said, the government would concentrate on ECHR “reform” and would examine the issue so as to provide “the minimum necessary” to avoid outright defying the ruling.

When the Cameron-led Conservative party first put forward the idea of an independent and home-grown British “Bill of Rights” that would take precedence over the European Convention, Clarke dismissed the idea as “xenophobic and legal nonsense.”

Although it has been admitted that the Commons vote is toothless, it was sharply criticized by ECHR President Jean-Paul Costa, who said that any attempt to refuse the court’s rulings or pull the country out of its jurisdiction would put Britain on the same moral level as the repressive military regime that briefly ruled Greece in the 1960s.

“The only country which denounced the Convention [on Human Rights] was Greece in 1967 at the time of the dictatorship of the Colonels,” Costa said.

“I cannot imagine … that the UK, which is a great country, could be in the same situation as the Colonels in 1967.” He said that it would be a “disaster” for Britain if the country were to withdraw from the ECHR.

Costa added in a BBC interview, “I think the raison d’etre of the court is to be a little above the national laws, of course with prudence and self restraint.”

The issue came to a high boil in November, after it was revealed that the government was being slapped with £150 million in lawsuits from 568 prisoners demanding their “right” to vote. Faced with the overwhelming potential costs of the claims, a spokesman for the prime minister announced that there was no way the government could oppose the ruling.

A decision by a High Court justice on Friday negated that threat, however, opening the issue once again. The prisoners had been seeking £5,000 each in compensation after they were barred from voting in last April’s general election, but Mr. Justice Langstaff denied their claim and ordered them instead to pay £76 each towards the government’s legal costs.

Had the suit succeeded, the government had expected that thousands of the approximately 70,000 prisoners would follow with more claims.

A legal brief prepared for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said it is unlikely that Britain would be thrown out of the Council of Europe if Parliament decided to ignore the ECHR on any given issue. Technically the Court’s own rules say that any politician defying the court can have his home or assets seized by a British court, or face a charge of contempt of court. But the briefing calls this an unlikely scenario in practice.

The briefing said that the worst that is likely to happen if Britain asserts its sovereignty over the court is a political reprimand.

The ECHR has a long history of issuing rulings that effectively overturn laws of sovereign states, including one recent ruling that ordered the Italian government to remove crucifixes from all public schools and offices. Recently, British MPs have called for reforms of the court after it issued rulings prohibiting the deportation of illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists.