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

TRINIDAD: Death Penalty Debate Revived

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Jul 20 2010 (IPS) - Faced with a steep escalation of the murder rate since it came to power on May 24, the new People’s Partnership government in Trinidad and Tobago is considering resuming capital punishment as a means of dealing with the situation.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar and senior members of her cabinet have already indicated that they are not averse to resuming capital punishment, which was last carried out here in 1999.

The new administration vowed in its first 120-day plan in office to initiate an anti-crime strategy that would cut the country’s high murder rate, with the first phase of the plan running from June to December.

In fact, Austin Jack Warner, a senior minister, said that Attorney General Anand Ramlogan had been asked to make a presentation to the cabinet on the issue.

“I have told the Attorney General that he must tell us what are some of the things we must do so as to free ourselves from these international organisations which try to frustrate the law of the land,” said Warner, who was heading the government while the Prime Minister was abroad earlier this month.

“I am convinced that were we to reinstitute hangings, which is the law of the land, it will have a dent on crime. I am convinced,” he said.

Former Prisons Commissioner Cipriani Baptiste agrees that the death penalty should be enforced. But, he argues that murders should be classified in order to differentiate crimes of passion from premeditated murders.

You cannot prevent murder when a person, in a fit of passion, murders someone while trying to protect himself or his family, Baptiste says. “But there are those people who sit and plot to go into people’s homes and murder them; these are the crimes that should be punishable by death, and this is why we need classification,” he told a local newspaper.

But not everyone is convinced.

President of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago Martin Daly in his newspaper column said it is simplistic, wrong and misleading for anyone to say that the law calls for the death penalty for convicted killers.

“It is true that the Offences Against The Person Act simply provides that ‘every person convicted of murder shall suffer death’. However, as a result of judicial decisions the law cannot be carried out simply following an instruction by a Prime Minister to an Attorney General such as the ‘instruction’ Minister Jack Warner purported to give when acting as Prime Minister,” he wrote.

The London-based Privy Council – the nation’s highest court – has placed restrictions on the carrying out of the death penalty. “The Privy Council has plainly stated that its judicial decisions, which can be properly described as restrictions on carrying out the death penalty, can be reversed. But that the means to do so is by amendment of the Constitution,” Daly said.

The Special Advisor on Children’s Affairs to the Prime Minister, Verna St. Rose-Greaves, has publicly stated her opposition to the resumption of hangings here.

“I am not going to change my opinion on this. Nor am I prepared to be silent on it,” she said, adding, “we cannot say that we are moving forward as a nation but then we go back to barbaric practices like hangings… I understand the pain of victims and their families, I do, and the anger from that is what is fuelling this bloodlust, but the death penalty is not a solution,” she said on a radio programme.

Scholar, author and social activist Dr. Merle Hodge has said that no government in this country has ever encouraged a proper airing of the death penalty issue and is calling on politicians to stop “giving us the ‘hanging will curb crime’ story”.

“We, the people frightened out of our wits by violent crime, latch on to this one solution that we have never really looked in the eye. We haven’t been allowed to. Hanging is very useful to politicians as they can use it to cynically whip up support at any time… We need a period of sober, level-headed and informed discussion among citizens on all issues of such gravity as the death penalty,” Hodge said.

The country’s last execution was carried out in 1999 when Anthony Briggs was sent to the gallows for the murder of a taxi driver in 1992.

A month before Briggs execution, nine people – including the reputed drug lord, Dole Chadee – went to the gallows for killing a family.

“It is inconceivable to have 295 [convicts] on death row awaiting the hangman when of course no one is trying to apply the law,” Warner said, adding that, “the law says death by hangings. And if a person is convicted and has of course used all his measures of relief up to the Privy Council, why should he stay in the prison anymore?”

So far this year, 292 people have been murdered here. In 2009, the figure stood at nearly 600.

However, despite those statistics, the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) is calling on the new government to devise an anti-crime plan that does not include hanging.

“We can find no conclusive proof that the death penalty is a deterrent that reduces crime rates,” said CCSJ Chairperson Leela Ramdeen. “In Trinidad and Tobago human life seems to be losing its value. Violence pervades the very fabric of our society,” she said, adding that the CCSJ, “welcomes this opportunity for a new national dialogue in Trinidad and Tobago about how we deal with crime and violence, how we restore respect for law and life, how we protect and rebuild communities, and how we help offenders to redeem themselves.”

The Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Society (TTHS) says that there is no country in the world where the death penalty has been proven to reduce crime.

“One notable comparison is between Canada, where the death penalty was abolished in 1976, and the U.S., where it was reinstated that same year after a ten-year moratorium. American homicide rates rose after the 1976 reinstatement, while Canadian homicide rates declined after its abolition,” the TTHS said. “Warner’s statement is yet another example of politicians pursuing policy which is not based on either proof or principle.”

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