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House of Ill Repute

Denis Solomon • 1,280 words

What made it worse was that the key to the dispute was not how soon it would be possible to start killing people, but which party would be able to take credit for it.

To be ashamed of your country is not a pleasant feeling. In forty years of involvement with official Trinidad and Tobago I have experienced it only on rare occasions. The latest and perhaps the worst was during last week’s debate in the House of Representatives on the “hanging” amendment to the Constitution.

A more thorough exhibition of hypocrisy, demagoguery and bad faith you could not wish for in a month of Sundays. Anything more tawdry in style or in content would have been very far to seek.

The fundamental premise of the event, accepted by both Government and Opposition, was that the people of this country want murderers to be hanged, and the ostensible purpose of the debate was to accomplish this. It was bad enough that hanging, and not falling oil prices, Caribbean integration, police corruption, mismanagement in State enterprises, the airport extension or reform of the sugar industry should have been the subject of the most strenuous debate of the Parliamentary session. What made it worse was that the key to the dispute was not how soon it would be possible to start killing people, but which party would be able to take credit for it.

Surprisingly, the Attorney General distinguished himself in the debate by telling the truth not once but twice. The first time was when he said that the PNM government had murdered Glen Ashby. The second was when he reiterated the Prime Minister’s statement that the Opposition’s only reason for blocking the Bill was to make the Government look bad.

Both truths concealed important falsehoods. The government’s sudden concern for Ashby’s fate was belied by its own reading of death warrants to people who are saved from the rope only by recourse to fully legal devices whose existence is as well known to Mr. Maharaj as to them. Everyone knows that should a fax to the Privy Council go astray or a judge decline to be awakened at two o’clock in the morning, Mr. Maharaj will break a neck as readily as the PNM broke Ashby’s on the same kind of technicality, a readiness made even more hypocritical by Mr. Maharaj’s own proclaimed status as an abolitionist.

The contention that the PNM is only concerned with trying to make the Government look bad is also perfectly true. But if the government could be made to look bad in the eyes of its supporters it would have been out of office long ago. It also assumes that the population can make no distinction between Government and Parliament, an incapacity which has been fostered by all politicians and parties, without exception, since independence. One remembers that Mr. Manning called the early 1995 election to beef up an already artificial majority of three, as if his party had a God-given right to be spared any need for Parliamentary compromise. Now the Government’s contention is that if the population wants its work done it must provide the UNC with a majority sufficient to enable it to bulldoze its way past the special majority provision of the Constitution, a provision which exists precisely to promote compromise over bulldozing.
The subject of the debate, therefore, was not its object. Its object was electioneering, pure and simple. The inevitable consequence was that the tone was not that of the legislature but of the hustings, and of particularly rowdy and illiterate hustings at that. Mr. Maharaj, indeed, demonstrated his lack of control of parliamentary discourse by an even greater incidence than usual of anacoluthon in his attempts at formal utterance, and a greater proportion of crude Creole as excitement got the better of him.

Crudity, indeed, was the order of the day. Mr. Manning at one point maintained that one clause of the Bill would enable condemned men to be hanged immediately after the warrant was read. This was a conscious misrepresentation on two counts: first, the clause in question lent itself to no such interpretation, and two, the usual delay of four days between warrant and execution is merely a convention, which has been breached in the past, and by the PNM. Mr. Manning, however, illustrated his point by stating that even Mr. Maharaj’s brother, now under sentence of death in Florida for murder, had told one of his victims to kneel and make his peace with God before shooting him in the head. Mr. Maharaj, for his part, repeatedly accused the Opposition of blocking the Bill to save their friends in Death Row from the scaffold.

Mr. Manning’s insistence on preserving the right of access to the human rights bodies would have been convincing only if he had not also agreed that the time spent before these bodies should not count toward the five-year Pratt and Morgan limit. This in fact was the PNM’s policy when in office, and is even more hypocritical than the UNC’s approach because it recognises the commissions while rendering them impotent. In fact, the PNM went further along this path by hanging Ashby while his appeal to one of the commissions was pending. Mr. Manning sought to bolster his hypocrisy with a contention that the commissions were now complying de facto with the deadlines “imposed” on them by the Government, a claim he must know is completely unfounded.

The task of putting across the wearisome contention of the Government that the amendment is not about hanging per se but about applying the law fell on this occasion to Dr. Morgan Job. Dr. Job acquitted himself of his task in a spate of demagoguery larded with copious quotations from Thomas Aquinas and Cicero (which he pronounced “Kickero”, on the strength, he said, of his God-given right to pronounce words any way he liked). The efforts to save murderers from the gallows he attributed to the “European” orientation of an abolitionist conspiracy in this country and the abolitionist orientation of all members of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, both groups being out of touch with the social realities of Trinidad and Tobago. He neglected to mention that Latin America is not Europe and that the adherence of this country to the American Convention was, as its preamble states, a voluntary undertaking to join with the rest of the hemisphere to promote the principles of justice elaborated by civilised nations over the centuries. In the spurious profundity of his reflections on the origins of law and justice, Job denied these concepts the evolutionary content without which we would still be hanging pickpockets. He also implicitly denied any link between the society of Trinidad and Tobago and human society as a whole.

Above all, Job mercilessly flogged the dead horse of the Government’s contention that it is trying to apply the law, when in fact what it is trying desperately to do is change it. The law of Trinidad and Tobago does not say that murderers shall be hanged. It says they shall be condemned to death. This is not a quibble. Pratt and Morgan is part of the law of Trinidad and Tobago; the right of access to the Human Rights committees is part of the law of Trinidad and Tobago; the right to a stay of execution when a Constitutional motion has been entered is part of the law of Trinidad and Tobago. If the conflict among these provisions is to be resolved there must be better proof than either Government or Opposition has provided that the changes correspond to the desires of the people of this country, and a better explanation of their concomitant effects on democracy as a whole. There should also be, somewhere in the whole sordid mess, a glimmer of recognition that on occasion governments should lead, not follow, the people they serve.

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