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Execution Binge

Denis Solomon • 1,162 words

But we should also ask ourselves what our feelings will be when the hanging of fifteen people in quick succession, with more to come, has put us in the same league as China, Nigeria and Iran as a nation of mass executions.

If you think you have heard enough about the death penalty, stop reading this and go to the comic page. But if you think, as I do, that this country is fast approaching a moment of moral crisis, then read on.

Last Friday the Attorney General got to his feet and twice deliberately misrepresented the law to his fellow Members of the House of Representatives. One misrepresentation was this: that a decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council “has made it unlawful” not to apply the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago. If you don’t believe me, check with the Hansard office.

The other falsification was one Mr. Maharaj has been guilty of before. It came as part of the statement he was making on the withdrawal of Trinidad and Tobago from the American Convention on Human Rights. Verbatim, it goes as follows: “The question (…) is not whether capital punishment should be carried out or not. That question has already been decided by the people of Trinidad and Tobago”.

There has been no referendum on the death penalty that I know of. The Attorney General was referring to the Prescott report, which said that the majority of the population favoured capital punishment. Even if that is true, it does not amount to a “decision” by the people of Trinidad and Tobago. National decisions are not taken through answers to a survey. And the value of the Prescott report as a survey was summed up by the Director of the Centre for Criminological Research, Dr. Roger Hood of All Souls College, Oxford, who said “I have never seen such a poor piece of work from an official body charged with a subject of such importance”.

The only forum that could have legitimised the Prescott report as a decision of the people of Trinidad and Tobago was Parliament. It was not put before Parliament because it was a lousy piece of work.

The shocking thing about what happened in Parliament on Friday was not so much the spectacle of Mr. Maharaj’s playing fast and loose with the law, but the ease with which he could get away with it. In a Chamber half full of lawyers not one felt able to get to his feet and correct a glaringly false and self-serving statement about the law by the chief law officer of the nation.

Just as shameful was the behaviour of the Opposition. Mr. Patrick Manning, having regaled the Press with complaints about the “secretive” way in which the withdrawal from the Convention was done, and the fact that it was not put to Parliament, said not a word of these concerns to Parliament.

Mr. Maharaj told the House that Trinidad and Tobago had also withdrawn from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and had then re-acceded with a reservation preventing the UN Human Rights Committee from hearing murder petitions. Apart from that, his statement was more significant for what it obscured or omitted than for what it revealed. The Human Rights bodies, he said, could not guarantee that they would keep to the time frames demanded by Trinidad and Tobago. What he did not say was that at the last meeting of the Inter-American Commission the Chairman roundly condemned Trinidad and Tobago for trying to dictate to the Commission. I heard this from someone who was there.

The statement also obfuscates the key element in Mr. Maharaj’s short-term intentions. To appreciate this you have to read the statement closely. The Convention and the Covenant both stipulate a grace period before withdrawal takes effect. There are twenty-seven people whose petitions must be heard despite the withdrawal. But fifteen of them will also fall within the Privy Council guidelines if the Human Rights bodies follow Mr. Maharaj’s time-frames. These people, he says, “are liable to be executed”.

The Human Rights bodies will not observe Mr. Maharaj’s time-frames. So what does “liable to be executed” mean? The Human Rights bodies do not, says Mr. Maharaj, have the power to stop the State carrying out an execution. This is true, but it was true even before the withdrawal. The whole point of any international agreement is that its signatories voluntarily undertake to abide by its terms. The Attorney General goes on: “In the revised Instructions issued to the Human Rights bodies for the conduct of petitions during the period until withdrawal becomes effective, it is expressly stated that nothing shall take away from the State the right to carry out the sentence (…) once the time-frames stipulated in the Instructions have expired”.

By juxtaposing these two statements, Mr. Maharaj implies that they have equal validity; that the “Instructions” issued (notice that he doesn’t say issued by him) to the Human Rights bodies exempt him from abiding by their rules. But the State has no right to issue “Instructions” to the Human Rights bodies. What Mr. Maharaj is saying, or rather concealing, is that he intends to hang fifteen people in the very near future.

To increase the obfuscation, Mr. Maharaj omitted from his statement something that the newspapers had to find out for themselves. Namely, that the Commission, alarmed by his “Instructions” and their bloodthirsty implications, obtained from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights an Order asking Trinidad and Tobago not to hang the first five men on the list.

If Mr. Maharaj were to obey the Court, there would be no reason for him to refuse the same request in respect of the next five, and so on. If he does not, the former “civil rights attorney” will be hanging fifteen people in defiance of a specific request from a Human Rights Court.

That is the moral crisis. Every citizen of this country should ask himself whether he consents to what Mr. Maharaj is supposedly doing on our behalf. The issue is not the death penalty. It is the moral orientation and the international credit of our country, and the right of Ramesh Maharaj to determine them.

But we should also ask ourselves what our feelings will be when the hanging of fifteen people in quick succession, with more to come, has put us in the same league as China, Nigeria and Iran as a nation of mass executions.

A final point about our re-accession to the UN Covenant. Even on initial ratification Trinidad and Tobago entered at least three times as many reservations as any other country. These reservations stipulate that the government of Trinidad and Tobago reserves the right to commit almost any violation of human rights it sees fit, once it first declares a state of emergency. So much for the Attorney General’s assurance to Parliament that “the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago remains as committed as ever” to the protection of the rights of all citizens, not just murderers.

This week, by the way, he will be piloting a Bill to increase restrictions on the right of assembly. Not for murderers. For ordinary citizens.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomon Page Top