Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-TRINIDAD: Gov’t Flirts with Return to Hanging Days

Peter Ischyrion

PORT OF SPAIN, Jan 25 2008 (IPS) - Trinidad and Tobago’s newly-appointed attorney general Brigid Annisette-George may well have been testing out public opinion when she let it be known at the start of the New Year that “anything is possible” regarding the resumption of hangings in the twin-island republic.

“The law is the death penalty. That is the law,” she told reporters briskly when quizzed as to whether the Patrick Manning administration, which returned to power on Nov. 5, was contemplating executing convicted killers as part of an overall strategy to stem the number of murders that last year reached a record 382.

The government is coming under increasing pressure from the private sector, opposition politicians and public opinion to do something about the soaring crime rate, particularly as the first violent days of the year suggested that the murder rate for 2008 could spiral even higher.

The government has already rejected the draconian measure of a national state of emergency. “If you tell me what a limited state of emergency will achieve that cannot be done without then I will be prepared to discuss the matter with you,” Manning said three days before his national security minister Martin Joseph outlined to parliament his new crime measures on Jan 7.

Later, on Jan 15, Manning signalled that his preferred solution was to return to executions, the last of which was carried out in 1999 when Anthony Briggs was sent to the gallows for the murder of a taxi driver in 1992.

“What we are talking about is enshrining in the law the conditions under which the death penalty can be carried out and therefore it is not left to the judgement of others,” Manning told local business people.

He added: “There have been a number of Privy Council decisions that have acted as constraints to the carrying out of the death penalty.” This would now be discussed in parliament and put to the people as an operating death penalty was a “very important” measure in reducing the murder rate.

The London-based Privy Council is the island’s highest court, despite the 2004 establishment of the Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) which regional governments want to be the Caribbean’s final court of appeal. While all Caribbean countries are signatories to the original jurisdiction of the CCJ, only Barbados and Guyana have signed up to its appellate jurisdiction.

Regional governments have long complained that the Privy Council has restricted them in carrying out the death penalty. In particular, the Pratt and Morgan ruling in 1993, named after two convicted Jamaican killers, set a five-year time limit for executing convicted murderers after sentencing.

In December last year, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for moratorium on executions leading to the eventual abolition of the death penalty worldwide. Thirteen Caribbean countries voted against the resolution accusing the co-sponsors, including all the E.U. members, of wanting to impose their will on other countries. Barbados said the region had also been threatened with the withdrawal of aid over the issue.

The announced debate in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament over the carrying out of the death penalty is likely to take place in mid-February. Lawmakers would need to amend the constitution by a special majority to circumvent the Privy Council’s restrictions on executions.

Ahead of the parliamentary debate, powerful and influential voices have been expressing their views, many of them staunchly opposed to a return to hangings. There are currently some 74 people waiting on death row, including eight women.

“At a time when virtually every ‘first world’ country has abolished the death penalty, resuming hanging will banish us to ‘bush country’ status and (expose us to) international ridicule in one swoop,” the Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association said in a statement.

Many studies had shown that the death penalty was not a murder deterrent. “There is also the ever-present danger of executing the innocent, especially in countries with police and legal systems as shaky as ours. Crime will not be reduced by grabbing at irrational, barbaric, quick-fix ideas,” the statement added.

The president of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association, Karen de Montbrun, called for the debate on the death penalty to be level-headed, rational and free of emotion.

“If the main objective is a reduction in violent crime, we need to examine the empirical evidence on whether or not carrying out the death penalty has a direct impact on the level of crime,” she argued.

Former opposition legislator and a member of the government-appointed national crime and justice commission Gillian Lucky, said there needed to be more discussion about the alternatives to the death penalty.

“There must be extensive public consultation on the issue,” she argued. “There should be conferences and forums whipping up public awareness on the subject and enabling the entire society to make an informed choice.” Finally, there should be a referendum to decide whether to abolish the death penalty.

Former attorney general and human rights lawyer, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, under whose government nine members of a gang were executed in 1999, was scathing in his criticism of Manning for calling for a return to these hanging days which ended in that year.

“It is a national joke for the prime minister in a situation where there is a 10-percent detection and a one-percent conviction rate to talk about implementing the death penalty as a solution to crime,” he declared.

Maharaj suggested the prime minister had abandoned his once progressive views. He recalled that in 1998 Manning had criticised the decision to revoke the country’s membership in the United Nations Committee on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“A man fighting for his life should have the remedy of going to the two international human rights bodies,” Manning had said at the time.

The Anglican Bishop Calvin Bess acknowledged the “huge problem” of the murder rate but called for no rash decisions. “I don’t think the answer is to rush headlong into hangings,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Manning’s expressed intention to resume hangings has been welcomed by many ordinary concerned citizens, some of whom have expressed their views in the local newspapers, radio and television talk shows.

“They should resume the hangings to reduce the murders,” Shelly Ann Arthur, a 40-year-old businesswoman, told one newspaper.

Executions were long overdue, added Larry Pierre, 46. “It is biblical and if they resume it the crime rate will be reduced,” he said.

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