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Brown apologises for 'appalling' treatment of Turing

Petition precipitates posthumous penitence

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The Prime Minister has apologised for the "appalling" persecution of World War II code breaker Alan Turing.

Gordon Brown's words of contrition came in response to a petition on the No 10 website calling for a posthumous government apology to the wartime hero and computing pioneer. The petition has received thousands of signatures in recent weeks, gathering the support of celebrities including writer Ian McEwan and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Turning was convicted of "gross indecency" in 1952 after his relationship with a young man became public and forced to agree to experimental chemical castration in order to avoid prison. He was denied clearance to work on classified work for GCHQ after the conviction. Prevented from exercising his formidable intellect, Turing fell into depression and committed suicide two years later in 1954, aged just 41.

Alongside his work leading a team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park during WWII, Turing was instrumental in designing the Bombe that automated the process of decrypting messages encoded using the German Enigma machines. He laid the foundations of modern computer science, by helping to design the Manchester Mark 1, and by establishing a theoretical basis for artificial intelligence.

In a statement, the Prime Minister acknowledged Turing's contribution to the war effort and his subsequent mistreatment.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely.

In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ - in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence - and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison - was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly.

Brown's statement concludes with: "So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better."

Proud to say sorry for an overdue apology? What does that even mean? The cynical may see Brown's apology as an attempt to shore up support among the gay community for an unpopular government. Still, whatever Brown's motives, the apology is welcome.

Turing's three nieces said they were "delighted" and "very glad" at the prime minister's recognition of the injustice against their uncle, the BBC reports.

John Graham-Cumming, the British computer scientist who started the campaign, also asked the Queen to give Turing a posthumous knighthood, thanked those who participated in a post on Twitter. "Thank you to everyone who helped make the Alan Turing apology happen. Will blog later; currently bed ridden with the flu," he writes.

Bletchley Park, where Turing did much of his work, is a national institution desperately short of funds needed for urgent repairs. The momentum achieved by Graham-Cumming's campaign might usefully be applied to calling for additional funds.

The call for an apology was the fourth most popular e-petition on the Downing Street website, at number one since April. A petition calling from Gordon Brown's resignation currently bears twice as many signatories. ®

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