Sunday, 14 October 2007

Death penalty hanging loose

Published on: 10/14/07

A PROMINENT MEMBER of the Roman Catholic clergy last week joined the debate on the death penalty, echoing the Vatican's view that, since all human life is sacred, killing whether by an individual or the state, is unacceptable.

It echoes this declaration by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: "We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion than we can defend life by taking life."

Last week, former Trinidad & Tobago attorney-general, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who once argued that capital punishment amounted to murder under the guise of law, is now saying it does indeed act as a deterrent to crime. According to him, when Trinidad and Tobago executed a number of murderers in 1999, homicides and other crimes, including kidnappings, dropped dramatically.

In his opinion, if executions had continued, the twin-island republic's murder rate would not now be in the region of 400 to date in 2007 alone.
Similar sentiment is being expressed in Jamaica which surpassed Brazil and South Africa to become the "murder capital of the world" by 2005. Already in 2007 more than 1 030 murders have been committed there and the Jamaica Defence Force is increasingly being used to assist the Jamaica Constabulary.

It is perhaps ironic that it was a Jamaican case, Pratt vs Morgan in 1993, in which a Privy Council decision was to mark a turning point in the region's approach to enforcement of capital punishment.

Their Lordships concluded that in any case in which execution is to take place more than five years after sentence there will be strong grounds for believing that the delay is such as to constitute "inhuman or degrading punishment or other treatment."

Although executions have not been carried out in Barbados for many years, all opinion surveys done here, as well as the majority of comments by writers and broadcasters on the subject of capital punishment, have shown our people to be overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the death penalty, particularly for the most heinous or premeditated murders. Actually, there appears to be a very large number who want to see it applied.

In the light of such endorsement, no government has attempted to remove that provision from the statute books, not even when, as now, some religious denominations and various human rights organisations agitated to have it expunged in countries across the world.

It is worthy of note that in the United States, inspired largely by western European countries and the Roman Catholic Church, there is growing momentum for outlawing capital punishment.
Such is the power of the United States, however, that there is no serious chance of sanctions being imposed to change the tradition of capital punishment. It is, therefore, the weaker countries that feel the force of a strong world lobby. In Arab countries the death penalty is a cultural and religious imperative.

It is disturbing, to say the least, that any Caribbean country could be threatened with loss of special diplomatic or economic treatment by its colonial master for failing to adopt a more liberal approach not only to capital punishment, but to homosexuality. Sanctions of one kind or another are also being held like a Damoclesean sword over theft heads.

It goes against the Barbadian tradition to accept that the death penalty should be abolished, although we very much doubt whether capital punishment will ever again be applied.
Those in this region and elsewhere who take the view that this form of punishment is not a deterrent appear dismissive of the fact that it is the constitutionally enshrined provision for the particular crime.

If the official policy now is not to enforce the death penalty, then our Constitution should be suitably amended.

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