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South African authorities say prisoners can vote

JOHANNESBURG, March 22 -- A multiparty body created to guide South Africa from apartheid to democracy decided Tuesday to allow all prisoners to vote in April's all-race election, national television reported.

The ruling by the Transitional Executive Council reversed a decision last week to prevent serious offenders from voting, and followed several days of prison riots and protests throughout the country.

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Twenty-three inmates have died in fires set in cells to protest the limited vote. In the worst incident, 21 prisoners suffocated Monday in a burning cell in Queenstown in the country's Cape province.

The decision to allow all prisoners to vote was supported by the independent commission created to manage South Africa's first all-race election and the African National Congress, which is widely expected to win the election.

'Many of those who are in prison today have become involved in crime because of the socio-economic conditions created by apartheid,' the ANC said in a statement. 'They have been sentenced in a white man's court under white man's justice.'

Most of South Africa's prisoners are blacks who received limited legal assistance before been sentenced by white magistrates and judges.

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The ANC said it would review its positions on allowing all prisoners to vote once a democratic society had been established.

Supporting the extension of voting rights, ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa told the Transitional Executive Council that more prisoners would die if the vote was not extended to all inmates.

The Independent Electoral Commission said that on a logistical level it would be difficult to allow some prisoners to vote, while excluding others.

A joint Transitional Executive Council, Independent Electoral Commission and government task force was created to finalize details as to how prisoners would cast their votes in the April 26-28 election, the South African Broadcasting Corp. reported.NEWLN: (written by Patrick Collings in Johannesburg, edited by Andra Varin in Washington)

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