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

RIGHTS-TRINIDAD: Ruling Dismays Death Penalty Advocates

Peter Ischyrion

PORT OF SPAIN, Sep 2 2008 (IPS) - A court order lifting the threat of execution hanging over 52 convicted killers in Trinidad and Tobago has put the government under renewed pressure from the opposition, death penalty supporters, the public and lawyers to set out clearly its position on the ultimate sentence.

On Aug. 15, high court judge Nolan Bereaux ruled that 49 men and three women awaiting execution should be taken off death row and their sentences commuted to life imprisonment

They were all benefiting from a 2004 decision of the Privy Council, the twin-island’s highest court of appeal, that it would have been “unfair” to execute those on death row because a year before they had been told that they could expect a review of their death sentences and even the possibility of a presidential commutation.

The Privy Council had ruled on an appeal by four death row prisoners from Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica against the mandatory death penalty in their countries. The judges struck down mandatory death penalty in Jamaica, but reversed their 2003 decision abolishing the automatic death penalty in Trinidad. The reason for this change of opinion was that the wording of Trinidad’s constitution differed from that of Jamaica.

The judges based their reasoning for commuting the Trinidad death sentences on a constitutional provision relating to “human rights and fundamental freedoms”. It was this power, also in the Jamaican constitution, that the Privy Council had invoked to justify its ruling in 1993 that it would be “inhumane” to execute anyone after spending more than five years on death row.

Bereaux’s order for 52 death sentences in Trinidad to be commuted only applied to those on death row up to Jul. 7, 2004. About 30 people have been sent to death row since and are awaiting execution.

But there has been an outcry over the commutation of most of the nation’s death row inmates at a time of a soaring violent crime rate. So far this year, there have been 344 homicides, making it one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The government should have commuted the sentences immediately after the 2004 Privy Council ruling, said Dana Seetahal, a lawyer and independent legislator.

“It may be that the authorities did not want a message being sent that convicted murderers would not pay the price of their crime,” Seetahal said. “The government needs to make up its mind what it intends in relation to the death penalty.”

Former attorney general and human rights lawyer Ramesh Maharaj agreed that the government should have acted immediately after the judges ruled in 2004.

After that the legal position on the death penalty was unclear and should have been “reviewed”, Maharaj said, adding: “Punishment is an important factor in the fight against crime.”

Criticism of the mass commutation has also been expressed by the president of the non-governmental organisation Crime Watch, Ian Alleyne.

“These people should not be spared…They broke the law, they murdered and then should face the ultimate penalty for murder which is death by hanging. Criminals will continue to terrorise, kill, murder and rape our innocent law-abiding citizens,” he said.

Radio and television talk shows have also been inundated with callers questioning Bereaux’s ruling and urging the government to resume executions.

“Even before the day is over, we will record at least two more murders,” said one irate caller. “We need to put an end to that.”

The government has responded to its critics by insisting that the death penalty remains in force.

It has also promised unspecified measures, presumably to re-start executions, the last of which were in 1999 when eight members of a gang were hanged for several murders.

“The government will take all steps which it considers necessary, including the enactment of relevant legislation to give effect to the law,” said the attorney general, Brigid Annisette-George.

Some of these measures would “affect” the Privy Council. She referred specifically to the 1992 Privy Council Pratt and Morgan ruling halting executions after five years on death row, hinting that the government would propose an amendment to its constitutional amendment bill.

Israel Kahn, a lawyer, has called on the government to restrict the death penalty to premeditated murder.

“Murder at this point should be classified in three degrees. First, second and third and the death penalty retained only for first degree murder until our society has developed to such a state that one day we would be able to abolish the death penalty,” Kahn said. “Without the classification in reality, the death of the death penalty already exists.”

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