Death Penalty Debate in Trinidad

Peter Richards

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 20  (IPS) — Claiming it is the best answer to an escalating murder rate, the eight-month-old People’s Partnership coalition has tabled legislation to amend Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution to resume executions.

The administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar has the required parliamentary special majority to ensure passage of the new legislation.

“Mothers have lost their sons and daughters, children are left motherless and fatherless. Homes left without incomes, families destroyed and forced into poverty and worse,” she said, arguing that the war on crime cannot be won “unless we use every weapon in our arsenal”.

According to government figures, 3,335 murders were committed here between 2002 and 2010. Currently, 42 people are on death row.

However, there is little data to support the government’s position. The Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Society (TTHS) notes 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.

While there is broad public support for the death penalty here, not everyone agrees. Social activist Verna St. Rose- Greaves, a strong anti-capital punishment advocate, told IPS there is need for “ongoing, informed and sustained debate on this issue”.

“We need to talk about the plan, the pain, the anger and victim support,” she said. “And unless we are prepared to sit down in calm and with respect and address those issues, we’re heading for more trouble.”

“The death penalty is about taking away our humanity,” she said.

The government insists that the “death penalty was and remains the law of the land” and that the proposed legislation “does not introduce any new penalty that did not previously exist”.

“It simply seeks to plug some of the loopholes that have been exploited and manipulated by murderers who have been properly convicted and sentenced to death according to law,”

the prime minister said.

Caribbean countries that are former British colonies have long complained that rulings by the London-based Privy Council, the final court for some of them, have made it much more difficult to carry out the death penalty.

The landmark 1994 Pratt and Morgan case requires the death penalty to be carried out within five years from the date of sentence. However, a 1999 Privy Council ruling upheld the right of condemned persons to appeal to international bodies to which Trinidad and Tobago is a member, even if such bodies are unable or unwilling to hear the case within the five-year deadline.

In an editorial, the Trinidad Guardian newspaper urged the government to consider breaking ties with the Privy Council and move towards the Port of Spain-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that was established in 2001.

The government said that the new legislation would seek to overcome the hindrances to the implementation of the death penalty arising out of various Privy Council decisions, such as pre-trial delay, post-trial delay, the expectation that the Mercy Committee would consider the findings of an international appeal, and inhumane prison conditions.

While in the past, all murders were eligible for the death penalty, the government says the new legislation would incorporate a previous law passed by Parliament in 2000 “whereby murders were categorised to strike a balance and appreciate the varied circumstances in which a murder can occur”.

As such the government, which came to power with a commanding 29-12 majority in the 41-seat Parliament last May, is proposing that the killing of a member of the security force, a prison officer, and a judicial or legal officer acting in the performance of his duties, the murder of a witness or a juror, and murders committed by a bomb and contract murders carry a mandatory death sentence.

The legislation also spells out the circumstances in which life imprisonment may be imposed, and the criteria for the lesser offence of involuntary homicide.

The last state execution took place in 1999 and the government may find that it still faces an uphill task executing death row inmates.

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan is expected weigh in on the United Nations moratorium approved by the U.N. General Assembly last month, calling on member states to gradually eliminate the death penalty.

Last November, Trinidad and Tobago sponsored and voted for four amendments to the moratorium which would have acknowledged the sovereign rights of member states to development of their own legal systems and penalties. But each of the amendments failed.

Prominent local attorney Israel Khan said while the U.N. moratorium “is not legally binding, it is highly persuasive” and may result in “repercussions in the international community politically”.

The Junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister in Britain, Jeremy Browne, who is on a tour of three Caribbean islands, said here on Wednesday that London does not support Port of Spain’s decision to implement the death penalty.

He said while it is up to “every individual country to make their own choices…our government’s position is that we would like countries to move towards total abolition of the death penalty.”

“We feel that this is the right way to go,” he told reporters.



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