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

RIGHTS-CARIBBEAN: Many Turn Backs on Wrongly Executed

Peter Ischyrion

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Mar 31 2008 (IPS) - The findings of the death penalty poll conducted in Jamaica were greeted with conflicting emotions of abhorrence and approval across the Caribbean – nearly half of all Jamaicans would favour a return to hanging, even if that meant a few innocent people dying along the way.

Pollster Bill Johnson had asked a representative sample of the population to first acknowledge that justice might err in capital trials, sending the wrong person to the gallows. Forty-three percent of the poll’s 1,008 respondents said they recognised this could happen – but they still backed Jamaica ending its 18-year-long unofficial moratorium on executions.

When simply asked whether Jamaica should resume hangings, 79 percent voted “yes” – a two-percent increase on the results of a similar poll for the same newspaper, The Gleaner, in 2006.

The results indicated “a level of frustration out there … (at the)… seeming inability of government to stem the rise in crime and violence. People want something to be done and they are not necessarily thinking logically about it,” Johnson said. The poll’s results and Johnson’s comments were widely reported in the region, underlining concerns shared by the Caribbean.

A joint United Nations-World Bank study in 2007 reported that the Caribbean had a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 inhabitants – four times the number in North America and 15 times that of West and Central Europe. Since that study was carried out, the murder rate has increased almost everywhere.

Last year, Jamaica recorded more than 1,600 killings. The number included 65 children and 146 women. So far this year, more than 400 murders have been committed.

Shortly after the new Johnson poll was published, Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) sought to draw lessons from its findings.

“It shows how much work we have to do to build people’s understanding of human rights and rule of law,” said JFJ chairwoman Dr Carolyn Gomes.

Though saddened, she was not surprised “given our willingness to participate and support vigilante justice,” she said, adding that a return to hangings would not be a step in the right direction.

Robert Buddan, a lecturer in government at the University of the West Indies, commented that the poll provided a warning to governments and human rights organisations about the urgency of positive action rather than constant debates on the death penalty.

“We need to do something on the ground to help communities to defend themselves because if we don’t, they have a right to their own methods,” he said, apparently in an effort to spur everyone into action before the unpredictable consequences of this were played out.

He also noted the damage that was being done to the Caribbean’s reputation. Its standing on the death penalty was isolating it in the world. The region saw capital punishment as a criminal justice rather than a human rights issue, just like Singapore which “many admire for its tough discipline”.

Buddan’s comments were graphically illustrated during the U.N. General Assembly debate on an execution moratorium last December. The Caribbean community (CARICOM) joined with Singapore and more than 65 other countries opposing or abstaining in the final vote. But some 104 countries, a significant majority of the world community, supported the resolution. It was Singapore that led the opponents with its criminal justice arguments.

Since that vote, the pro-death penalty sentiment in the Caribbean may well have intensified.

Particularly shocking killings have contributed to this. Two of these were recently in Guyana where unidentified gunmen killed 23 people.

In the Bahamas, where the murder toll already looks as through it will surpass the 2007 figure of 75, Christian leaders have clashed over the ‘bring back the hanging” call after an eight-year pause.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church of the Bahamas, Archbishop Patrick Pinder, has called for rational debate and urged the issue of the possibility of judicial mistakes to be addressed. “The death penalty, if carried out, is irrevocable. Unless the courts have resurrection power, there is no possibility of redress,” he said, bringing a hint of satire to the debate.

“Capital punishment may have the chance to serve as a deterrent in cases of premeditated crime where a person has time to reflect on the consequences of his or her actions,” he conceded. “However, how does this help us in the Bahamas where murder results predominantly from spur-of-the-moment violence born out of extreme of passion?”

But the head of the Bahamas Christian Council, Bishop John Humes, has backed the death penalty advocates, saying hangings should be re-started “immediately” for convicted killers.

“Once they have exhausted their appeal, the only thing that is left to be done is to administer justice – and that is capital punishment,” he said.

“Capital punishment is ordained by God. It is a divine system to create respect, reverence and fear of the law. When people have no respect and they feel as if they can do anything they want to do, it will cause things to become chaotic like where we are now heading,” he said. “If we don’t put a stop to [crime], it is going to affect us drastically…”

The Bahamas national security minister, Tommy Turnquest, has also stepped into the debate, urging everyone not to panic. “We need to involve everyone in this approach,” he said.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the Patrick Manning government has hinted at the possibility of resuming hangings. Manning is coming under increasing pressure from the private sector, opposition politicians and public opinion to do something about the soaring crime rate. So far this year, there have been 92 murders.

But Manning’s promise of a parliamentary debate on resuming executions after a nine-year break has so far not materialised.

Even in Grenada, where at least five murders have occurred since the start of the year, one opposition figure is currently calling for the resumption of hangings as a deterrent.

“I think it is time we put a cap on that. The deterrent is bringing back the hanging,” said Dorset Charles, who heads the minority opposition The National Party (TNP).

From Apr. 4 to 7, Caribbean leaders will be gathering in Trinidad to discuss the crime issue.

“We are taking the discussions to a new level,” Trinidad’s Manning said, adding that the Caribbean could not afford to lose the war on crime.

It is not known whether among the new strategies to be discussed in Trinidad will be a return to an old, well tried one – execution by hanging.

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