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STRASBOURG/LONDON (Reuters) - A European court ruled on Tuesday that Britain had violated the rights of three murderers by jailing them for life with no prospect of release, angering Conservatives who seek to remove European human rights laws from British legislation.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he "profoundly disagrees" with the court's ruling and signalled that he may join others in his Conservative Party in calling for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.
The European Court of Human Rights, which upholds that Convention, ruled that so-called "whole life tariffs" imposed on the three murderers amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.
"The court considered that, for a life sentence to remain compatible with (the Convention), there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review," it said.
It was the latest in a series of high-profile judgments by the court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, that have angered Britain.
Others have ranged from support for prisoners' voting rights to a decision that delayed the deportation to Jordan of radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada for years.
The court said Tuesday's ruling did not mean the murderers should be released imminently but rather that it was up to the British authorities to decide when to review their cases.
It said that whether or not they should ever be released would depend on factors such as whether they remained dangerous.
Despite these nuances, the judgment drew widespread criticism in Britain, where the court was seen by many of its critics to be siding with a trio of notorious killers.
Cameron's spokesman said the prime minister was "very, very disappointed".
"He profoundly disagrees with the court's ruling. He is a strong supporter of whole life tariffs," the spokesman said.
Opposition Labour politician David Blunkett, who was home secretary in 2003 when Britain scrapped rules that ensured all life sentences were reviewed after 25 years, also criticised the Strasbourg ruling.
"In 2003 we changed the law so that 'life' really meant life when sentencing those who had committed the most heinous crimes," he said in a statement, rejecting what he called the "technical justification" for the ruling.
The court was never going to make itself popular by upholding the complaints made by the three murderers.
They are Jeremy Bamber, convicted in 1985 of killing his adoptive parents, sister and her two young children, Peter Moore, who killed four men for sexual gratification in 1995, and Douglas Vintner, convicted of killing his wife in 2008 after having already been convicted of killing a colleague in 1996.
The three are among a total of 49 people serving whole life tariffs in Britain.
Apart from the emotive impact of these cases, the judgment also played into an anti-European mood in Britain. Although the Strasbourg court is not an EU institution, it has become wrapped into a wider debate about Britain's ties with the bloc.
Most Conservatives are hostile to the EU, and Cameron has pledged that if the party wins the 2015 election, a referendum will be held by 2017 on whether to stay in or leave.
Asked whether Cameron thought Tuesday's ruling showed there was a need for reform of Britain's relation with the Strasbourg court, his spokesman said: "Nothing is off the table."
The phrase echoed recent statements by Theresa May, the home secretary, who has suggested the Conservative Party could go into the next general election in 2015 pledging that if it wins, Britain will quit the Convention.
That would not be an easy step, however. The coalition government has already tried and failed once to replace the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention in British law, with a new British bill of rights.
Writing by Estelle Shirbon, additional reporting by Peter Griffiths