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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 19:15 GMT
Letter: Colonial power over death penalty

By Therese Mills
Editor of the daily Trinidad and Tobago newspaper Newsday

In a personal view, Therese Mills examines the divisive issue of the death penalty, and how it lies at the centre of attempts in the Caribbean to break one of the last remaining links with the former colonial power.

Prison cell block
Hundreds of death row prisoners may win a reprieve
Everyone called him Dole Chadee. It wasn't his real name.

But by whatever name, he was known as the notorious leader of a ruthless gang of men who were heavily involved in the drugs trade.

They were prime suspects in a number of unsolved murders.

Chadee was never seen in public other than immaculately dressed in well-fitting suits, his black glossy hair slicked down, his eyes always covered by dark shades, and accompanied by armed bodyguards.

Ordered killing

To many, he was untouchable - until the night of 10 January 1994, when he ordered a gang of 10 men to kill a family of four in a nearby village.

No motive was ever revealed, but it was rumoured that the elder son of the family had double-crossed Chadee - which led to Chadee's chilling order to murder the whole family.

The son, his mother and his sister were gunned down in the living room of their house as they watched television that night.

The father was ambushed on the steps of the house as he returned home, and suffered the same fate.

After months of intensive police investigations, two of the gang turned state witness, and Chadee and the rest of his cohorts were charged with murder.

They were found guilty, and sentenced to death for what the prosecution described as a most brutal murder of the family of four.

The final chapter in the Dole Chadee saga was written in June 1999, when Chadee and eight of his gang were executed by hanging at the state prison in Port-of-Spain.

The hangings took place over a weekend - three on Friday, three on Saturday and three the following Monday.

Abolitionists were appalled at the gruesome hanging of the nine men, and the event served to focus attention on the issue of the death penalty.

It is written into the constitutions of the English-speaking Caribbean chain of nations, from Jamaica in the North to Guyana in the South.

Abolition

A group of vocal lawyers, who have the attention of the media, support the campaign for abolition.

In their view, the death penalty is cruel and inhumane.

On the other hand, the majority of ordinary people all over the Caribbean want to keep it for the crime of murder.

At the centre of the debate is the Privy Council in London - the final court for all matters from the former Caribbean colony since colonial times.

Its rulings over the years are seen by many in the Caribbean as clear indication that it wants to see an end to the judicial killings.

Chadee was put to death for drug-related crime
Trinidad gang boss Dole Chadee (right) was executed in 1999
Caribbean governments, for their part, see the death penalty as a vote-winner. So they are pushing ahead with a plan to replace the Privy Council with a Caribbean Court of Justice.

This new court is due to open in Trinidad in two months' time. But the opening of the court has hit one snag after another.

It is supposed to be based in Trinidad and Tobago, which has provided a building to house the court and, indeed, is bearing most of the expense for its establishment.

But appeals from Trinidad and Tobago will still have to go before the Law Lords in London, and that is because the Trinidad and Tobago government has so far been unable to pass the required special amendment to its constitution.

Colonial legacy

But only this week, another stumbling block appeared, when the Jamaica opposition appealed to the Privy Council to support its position that the country's government needs to hold a referendum before it can set up a Caribbean Court of Appeal.

Jamaica has a keen interest in replacing the Privy Council, which 10 years ago ruled against it in an appeal against a sentence of murder.

In that case, referred to as Pratt and Morgan, the Privy Council had ruled that it was cruel and inhumane to keep a man or woman on death row for five years.

Justice, it said, should be swift.

Human rights groups have warned that the regional court could open the door for governments to resume executions
The difficulty was that death row inmates would appeal to international human rights organisations that took years to render a decision.

So a convicted killer could keep raising appeal after appeal, knowing that he could not be hanged after five years were up.

If Caribbean states, whose people overwhelmingly support the death penalty for murder, wanted to keep it that way, they would have to get rid of the Privy Council.

For instance, in 2003 Balkissoon Roodal was sentenced to death for shooting dead a man in a marijuana field.

Controversy

When his appeal reached the Privy Council, his attorneys raised the argument that in Trinidad and Tobago's constitution, the death penalty was not mandatory - and that the trial judge had the discretion as to what sentence should be imposed for murder.

The argument found favour with the three Law Lords who heard the case in London, and in a landmark decision, the Privy Council agreed.

Privy Council Judicial Committee
Founded in 1833
Deals with a dozen capital cases a year
Also acts as final civil appeal court for Mauritius, Tuvalu and Bermuda
Has power to overrule judges in Isle of Man and Channel Islands
Deals with appeals against General Medical Council and other professional bodies
Handles constitutional appeals regarding laws created by Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly
The result of their ruling had a ripple effect - not just in Trinidad and Tobago, where there were 86 men and women on death row, but in the entire Caribbean where the penalty for murder was death by hanging.

Roodal's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, as was the sentence of all others on death row - a development that angered Caribbean governments and people, and received strong negative publicity in the media.

An unusual panel of nine Privy Council judges was set up to reconsider the issue of whether the death penalty was mandatory or not - normally just five sit.

Over a fortnight, in a windowless room in the House of Lords, they considered cases from three islands at once: from Jamaica, Barbados, and that of Charles Matthews from Trinidad and Tobago.

The court had heard that Matthews had gone to the house of his estranged wife, armed with a home-made shotgun, and showed her a cartridge, telling her "this one is for you," before killing her.

He was sentenced to death.

The prosecutors in all three states insisted that the death penalty was mandatory, according to their constitutions.

Constitutional amendments

In an historic move, the Privy Council reversed its earlier decision by a 5-4 majority.

The Law Lords declared that the death penalty for murder was, after all, mandatory in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.

Since then, Commonwealth Caribbean states - with two exceptions - have amended their constitutions abolishing appeals to the Privy Council, replacing it with the Caribbean Court of Justice.

Grenada was only prevented from doing so by Hurricane Ivan, which devastated the island last October and set back its legislative agenda.

But Grenada is likely to have its constitution amended before March.

That leaves Trinidad and Tobago as the only Caribbean state not likely to do so.

The Trinidad and Tobago opposition has bluntly refused to support the amendment to the constitution.

The biggest irony is that it was the opposition leader Basdeo Panday who, when he was prime minister, signed the treaty to establish the Caribbean Court of Appeal.

But now that he's out of government, Mr Panday has got another agenda. He wants changes to the constitution not just to do away with the Privy Council.

In an act of impressive political expediency, he's now insisting that he will only support the change if the constitution is also altered to bring in new election laws.

Caribbean Court of Justice

He argues that the present first-past-the-post system, which was inherited from Britain, is unfair in a multiracial society like Trinidad and Tobago's.

He says proportional representation needs to be brought in - something the government is resisting strongly.

The Caribbean Court of Justice is due to start operating in a few weeks, but the opening of its doors is going to be an occasion of great embarrassment for the government, and people, of Trinidad and Tobago.

Basdeo Panday
Former Prime Minister, Panday, supports changes to the constitution in order to bring in new election laws
And now Jamaica, which has already passed legislation to introduce the court, has to wait for the Privy Council to rule whether it can go forward without holding a referendum.

If the Privy Council says yes to a referendum, then the Caribbean Court of Justice may be a non-starter without the two biggest countries.

But none of this is happening in isolation.

The issue of the Caribbean Court is also tied up with arguments worldwide over the death penalty.

Human rights groups have warned that the regional court could open the door for governments to resume executions.

Caribbean countries that find themselves sucked into drug trafficking between the Americas and Europe are experiencing a worrying increase in drug-related and gangland crime, and are largely in favour of retaining the death penalty for murder.

There is also the question of the sovereignty of states that wish to be truly independent and, once and for all, shake off the yoke of colonialism.

Finally getting rid, of the Privy Council would be the ultimate political affirmation that the Caribbean states are the masters of their own affairs.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.



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