Tuesday 1 February 2011

Trinidad & Tobago's death penalty push is not about sovereignty

The nation's PM wants to break the link with the UK privy council – but doesn't engage with the Caribbean court of appeal either

Anthony Briggs, who went to the gallows in July 1999, is the last person to have been executed by the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. He had battered a taxi driver to death in a row over car parts. A month earlier,Dole Chadee, a drug baron who maintained a criminal syndicate through the patronage of communities and government agents, also received the death penalty, along with eight of his minions. Chadee and his gang had been convicted of gunning down an entire family.
Today Trinidad and Tobago has 42 prisoners on death row who are awaiting execution. Between 2002 and 2010, there were 3,335 murders, an average of 416 a year in this nation of 1.3 million people. The prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, asserts that the death penalty is a "weapon in [our] arsenal" to fight this horrendous murder rate. Through a proposed amendment to the constitution, she has made a case to "overcome the hindrances to the implementation of the death penalty arising out of various privy council decisions". If the bill passes, death row inmates could not escape the gallows by complaining of inhumane prison conditions. Nor could they argue they are entitled to have their cases disposed of by international human rights bodies, before the last-ditch hearings by the local mercy committee, an advisory body on pardons.
Capital punishment enjoys widespread public support in Trinidad and Tobago, as it does in many Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean. In an effort to play to populist sentiment, the drive to hang convicted murderers is cast throughout the Caribbean as a matter of national sovereignty. But its opponents believe that Persad-Bissessar's measure is a vast over-reach, and legally unnecessary. They argue that her initiative is fundamentally symbolic and intended to create the perception that she is being tough on crime.
Abolitionists hail the fact that there has been no execution in Trinidad and Tobago since 1999 as a massive victory of public interest legal advocacy. Campaigns such as the Death Penalty Project, an initiative of the London firm of Simons, Muirhead and Burton, have worked with Caribbean lawyers for nearly two decades. As a private lawyer (and working pro bono) the present UK director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, helped argue privy council cases that struck down mandatory death sentences for murder in Jamaica and the Bahamas.
Despite talk of sovereignty in discussions on the death penalty, the London-based privy council is still Trinidad and Tobago's final court of appeal. This arrangement is a throwback to the days when the country was a British colony. The judicial committee of the privy council is essentially comprised of the judges of the UK supreme court, reconstituting themselves as the privy council. Though UK judges ordinarily work in a domestic system that has long abolished the death penalty, they have shown remarkable restraint and fidelity to the laws of Caribbean countries. Trinidad and Tobago's engagement of the privy council persists, even as the Caribbean court of justice (CCJ) – intended as a final court of appeal for Caricom member countries – is situated in its capital, Port of Spain. Yet neither it nor Jamaica sends cases to the CCJ, as their final appellate court.
Persad-Bissessar's attempts to challenge the drive towards abolition must be resisted. Her government's failure to fully engage with the CCJ and subject death penalty questions to a homegrown final court, suggests an abiding suspicion of judicial review and the influence of international human rights. The CCJ has earned kudos for its choice of judges and the rigour of its decisions. The PM should submit to the court, and thereby signal her acceptance of its role as the ultimate judge of law in Caribbean society.
Philip Dayle

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