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Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Grenada considers prisoners' fate

By Ron Bhola
BBC News

US Marines with prisoners from the PRG - file photo from November 1983
US Marines invaded Grenada days after Maurice Bishop was killed

Soft reggae music - known as "lovers rock" - hangs in the air piped gently through the public address system of the main hospital in Grenada's hilly capital, St George's.

The tranquil mood is in stark contrast to the events of 1983 when the nearby fort, which overlooks the General Hospital, was the scene for serious violence that left the prime minister, Maurice Bishop, dead.

Now the last of the "Grenada 17" jailed for his murder look set to be released.

Mr Bishop had come to power 30 years ago on a heady day - 13 March - when his youthful revolutionaries overthrew the autocratic elected leader, Sir Eric Gairy.

In the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG) Mr Bishop worked closely with his deputy prime minister, Bernard Coard, the minister of the finance. But by 1983 rumours of their increasing rivalry broke into the open with the prime minister placed under house arrest for refusing to accept a joint leadership plan.

GRENADA'S RECENT HISTORY
7 Feb 1974: gains independence from UK
13 Mar 1979: revolution topples Sir Eric Gairy
19 Oct 1983: PM Maurice Bishop killed
25 Oct 1983: US troops land

Mr Bishop's supporters freed him on 19 October and took him to the police headquarters at the fort as a huge crowd gathered.

But many were forced to flee over the steep walls of the 18th Century garrison to the hospital below as soldiers sent to retake the fort opened fire.

Then the soldiers who had once followed him as commander-in-chief lined Mr Bishop, his cabinet supporters and others up against a wall on the top square of the fort and shot them.

For many Grenadians the revolution died with them; officially it happened a week later when US marines invaded the island over-coming the small local army to restore order. Elections followed a year later.

'Politically-charged'

Bernard Coard, his wife and 15 others were convicted of the murders on the fort and sentenced to hang; their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in 1991.

Richmond Hill prison
I had to confront the fear of what I could have done to them because of my anger.
Marcelle Belmar, victim's sister

Of the original "Grenada 17", only 13 remained in custody when in February 2007, following years of legal wrangling, the Privy Council in London (sitting as Grenada's final court of appeal) ordered a review of their sentences "taking into account the progress made by the appellants during their time in prison".

The law lords acknowledged the fate of the prisoners as "so politically-charged that it is hardly reasonable to expect any government of Grenada...to take an objective view".

So they ordered the Grenada High Court to do so.

Within months Justice Francis Belle delivered his ruling: immediate release for three former soldiers; Coard and others re-sentenced for 40 years with a parole review within two years.

'Rumour mill'

Historic elections last year changed the governing party for the first time since 1995; ironically the new prime minister has an intimate knowledge of the island's prison.

Tillman Thomas was detained without trial from 1981 to 83 by Mr Bishop's PRG - the prisoner had turned jailer.

Just before Christmas, while Mr Thomas attended a graduation ceremony for prisoners who had passed a small business programme, one of the imprisoned former PRG ministers, Selwyn Strachan, took the opportunity to apologise for jailing him.

"This man has put those things that were done to him aside to work with people who had previously put him in jail. He does not talk reconciliation, it's his way of life," Bernard Coard said to reporters after the ceremony.

Maurice Bishop and Bernard Coard
Bishop and Coard planned Grenada's revolution on 13 March 1979

Days later, the Grenada's Mercy Committee freed three more prisoners including the much maligned general who had announced a curfew after Mr Bishop's murder.

But when rumours of the imminent release of the remaining prisoners circulated in February, Mr Thomas issued a stern statement:

"As Prime Minister and Minister for National Security, I give the assurance to every Grenadian, that no decision has been made as to the release of any inmate or group of inmates... these attempts to feed the rumour mill and create turmoil and uncertainty in our society [are] regrettable and irresponsible."

Supporters of Bernard Coard, a former academic, characterise the events of 1983 as a Greek tragedy where actions and reactions escalated to a violent end, and say both military and civilian lives were lost in the confrontation.

Schoolgirl Gemma Belmar was among them.

Years of anger followed for her sister, Marcelle, until she was forced in 2005 to come face-to-face with the people she blamed for Gemma's death. As a government pharmacist she was posted to General Hospital where she had to walk through a waiting room shared with a physiotherapist who would often treat prisoners.

"I was seeing them mostly everyday. I had to confront the fear of what I could have done to them because of my anger. But it proved a turning point and, through prayer, I began to move past it. There was pain sometimes but not anger."

She says she has now forgiven the prisoners, even visiting to pray with them.

No guarantee

Back in 1983, the outside world was alerted to growing unrest by student protests led by her sister, Gemma, which briefly closed Grenada's small airport on its blustery Atlantic coast.

Two rusting aeroplanes on a disused airport on Grenada
The closed Pearls airport is now used for drag-racing and grazing
A year later, the opening of the Cuban-built international airport in the south closed it for good.

On the grass beside the disused runway cows graze around two stranded aircraft left behind by Grenada's communist allies, as calves play beneath the rotting fuselages.

Like the aircraft left to rust many Grenadians would be happy for the prisoners to serve out their sentences.

They say Coard has not accepted his guilt nor offered an unconditional apology and are still angry the remains of Bishop and others killed on the fort were never returned to their families.

There is no guarantee the parole reviews, ordered to be carried out by the end of June, will result in the release of Coard and his fellow inmates but for their supporters the hope is that this will be the last anniversary of the revolution they spend behind bars.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Grenada
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Grenada
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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