Former IACHR president argues against death penalty in T&T

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(CMC) Former president of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, says there is need to have a “conversation” on the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago.

Writing in the Trinidad Express newspaper on Christmas day, the Dean at the Faculty of Law at the St Augustine campus of the  University of the West Indies (UWI), said she is not surprised at the renewed calls for the implementation of the death penalty here, “at a time when violent crime is on a high”.

So far more than 450 people have been murdered in Trinidad in 2016 and earlier this month, the head of the Roman Catholic Church here, Archbishop Joseph Harris, maintained that the church is against the imposition of the death penalty, saying there could be no good reason for killing someone.

“Pope Francis has said…it [death penalty] is an offence against human dignity and the values of life and therefore it is inadmissible,” he said.

Attorney General Frais Al-Rawi said that the death penalty remains on the law books here and that it is “to be applied for murder and we certainly intend to apply the law and it is something that I have been tracking for one year straight”.

There are now 32 people on death row and Al-Rawi said he had been tracking those cases since he came to office more than a year ago.

“Under the laws of Trinidad and Tobago the punishment for murder…a conviction of murder is that you shall hang until you are dead,” Al Rawi said, noting that for various reasons none of these people can be executed at this time.

In July, former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj called on the government to ensure that the death penalty is carried out, saying he could not understand why the problem of crime cannot be solved or reduced in the country.

“I could not understand why it is that the government is spending all this money on the Ministry of National Security but the country cannot be safe.

“It needs a situation in which the criminal must know that if he does the crime he or she will be detected, will be convicted and will be sentenced and the death penalty will be carried out,” he said.

But in her article, Professor Belle-Antoine said that while the death penalty remains on the books here “as is well known, its use has decreased because of obstacles premised on decisions in constitutional law that deemed undue delay on death row to be cruel and inhumane punishment, a threshold that states in the Caribbean generally have found difficult to cross, given the inefficiencies of our criminal justice systems.

“The preoccupation with the “cruel and inhuman” issue has, to my mind, become a distraction, in that, we as a people, have avoided examining the various dimensions of the use of the death penalty as a punishment. This is a conversation that we need to have.”

She said acclaiming the use of the death penalty as some sort of panacea “for the deep-rooted problems that we face with crime is at best misleading and at worst, gives us permission to avoid reaching real solutions for crime.

“The death penalty has been, if anything, counterproductive to law and order efforts, since, in my view, it gives a false sense of security. We tell ourselves, if only the criminals knew that they would be hanged then they would not commit crime.

“From our long experiment with the death penalty as a tool for law and order (or appeasing the public), it must now be obvious to everyone that the death penalty is no deterrent to crime.

“To those who believe that crime occurs because we keep offenders on death row and do not hang them, have we forgotten a few years ago when nine persons were executed one after the other? Did that make even a dent in our ever-growing crime problem?”

Professor Belle-Antoine said that beyond the region ‘it is surely easy to compare those countries with the death penalty, like the USA, which until recently, even hanged children, as against those without, the UK, Europe.

“It is apparent that serious crime is more prevalent in the former than the latter. So much for the theory of the death penalty as an effective deterrent to crime.”

She said the due process issues that surround the death penalty cannot be ignored.

“Errors continue to occur in our justice systems, exacerbated by poor lawyering and crime detection methods. How many innocent people have been convicted? Unlike the US, we do not have the high-tech forensic testing that reveals such flaws, but they exist. Further, those who suffer most from the inefficiencies of the system are the poor.”

She asked whether or not the “criminal justice system have the capacity to act fairly when confronted with troubling issues like the impacts of poverty, inadequate legal representation, mental illness and related issues upon the death penalty?

“Another consideration is that Trinidad and Tobago still retains the death penalty without exception, in that it is mandatory for everyone and every eligible offence, without the possibility of life imprisonment as an alternative for deserving cases.

“This is an incredibly unjust system, as many courts have pointed out. In fact, this country is in an isolationist position, since our Caribbean neighbours have abolished the mandatory death penalty, Barbados now in the process of doing so.”

Professor Antoine said for her, the enduring questions are deeply philosophical and involve more than the question of whether innocent persons go to the gallows, or efficacy.

“It reaches to the heart of the kind of nation that we seek to define for ourselves. For former slave societies like ours that were born out of violence, the death penalty seems incongruous, immoral and incompatible with societal aims. Can we expect that our society will be anything but accepting and immune to the most heinous forms of violence?

“This is similar to the misconception that to fight crime we must create militarised regimes. I have seen first-hand the escalating violence that this has created in Latin America, Mexico, for example.

Treating violence with violence engenders greater violence.

“I believe that the death penalty is out of sync with our attempts to create caring, just societies and meaningful democracies. Also consider who ends up on death row –and how they got there.

“Yes, many of those persons may in fact have committed the crime, but we must be failing as a society if we keep producing the same results, the same kinds of persons going to the gallows–typically poor, black, male. This is stark in the USA, but no less a reality here.”

Professor Belle-Antoine said that the continued punishment/execution of this group without interrogating the reasons for the paradigm entrenches the problem.

“It cannot be that this demographic are predisposed to criminality. I note that our politicians are beginning to acknowledge that serious crime has deep social roots. The death penalty is ineffective, counter-productive, inhumane and immoral. We need to move on and find real solutions for our crime problem,” she argued.

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