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Trinidad and Tobago: Executions threatened by proposed constitutional change

, N° d'index: AMR 49/011/1996

The government of Trinidad and Tobago is attempting to pass legislation which would amend the country's constitution and allow it to carry out executions currently deemed unconstitutional. If the amendment is passed, prisoners that have been on death row for more than five years, will face imminent execution.

EXTERNAL AI Index: AMR 49/11/96
UA 229/96 Death penalty 30 September 1996
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGOExecutions threatened by proposed constitutional change
The government of Trinidad and Tobago is attempting to pass legislation which
would alter the country's constitution and allow it to carry out executions
currently deemed unconstitutional. If the amendment, expected to come before
parliament in the immediate future, is passed, many death row prisoners will
face imminent execution. It could also have serious implications in other
Caribbean countries.
Trinidad and Tobago's Constitution forbids cruel or unusual punishment. The
Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1996, seeks to amend the constitution to provide
that a delay of more than five years between death sentence and execution would
not constitute cruel or unusual punishment. The Bill also gives parliament
the right to vary the manner in which execution is carried out and will not
allow legal appeals from prisoners under sentence of death on the grounds of
any claim of cruel or unusual punishment and treatment.
If passed (it needs a two thirds majority vote), the Bill would in essence
overturn the 1993 ruling of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC)
in London (the highest court of appeal for Trinidad and Tobago) in the case
of Jamaican death row prisoners, Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan. This ruling stated
that the execution of prisoners who have been on death row for more than five
years constitutes inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. It recommended
that such prisoners should have their death sentences commuted to life
imprisonment. In 1995, the JCPC ruled in a Trinidad case that the execution
of a prisoner who had been on death row for 4 years 10 months would also constitute
cruel or unusual punishment, and recommended commutation to life imprisonment.
The Bill proposes to apply retrospectively to prisoners who have been under
sentence of death for longer than five years whose sentences have not yet been
commuted.
According to news reports, the government's move has been criticised by
anti-death penalty activists in Trinidad and Tobago who have said that the
Pratt and Morgan case set important guidelines for ensuring that human rights
standards were not subject to arbitrary political and other action. The
President of the Trinidad and Tobago Bar Association reportedly said that the
move "set us on the road back to the Dark Ages when torture and degradation
of human beings was acceptable forms of judicial punishment".
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
The precedent set by the 1993 Pratt and Morgan ruling has led to over 50 prisoners
having their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment in Trinidad and
Tobago, as well as in several other Caribbean countries. However, since the
JCPC's ruling, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has issued warrants of
execution to prisoners who have been under sentence of death for more than
five years. All but one, Glen Ashby, had their sentences commuted. On 14
July 1994, Ashby, who was just six days away from completing five years under
sentence of death, was executed despite appeals pending and assurances from
the Attorney General that there would be "no execution until all possibility
of obtaining a stay of execution... has been exhausted" (see UA 266/94, AMR
49/03/94, 15 July 1994). Ashby's execution was the first in the country for
15 years.
2
Trinidad has experienced a rising crime rate, including a high number of murders,
in recent years, and capital punishment remains popular with the public there
and in other Caribbean countries. According to press reports, Attorneys
General and Ministers of Justice of the 14 countries comprising the Caribbean
Community (CARICOM) recently met in Barbados to discuss a common approach to
the death penalty in view of their difficulties in carrying out executions,
particularly due to the restrictions under the Pratt and Morgan ruling.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: Please send telegrams/faxes/express/airmail letters in
English or your own language:
- expressing deep concern about the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1996, which
seeks to overturn the 1993 Pratt and Morgan ruling by the JCPC, and would allow
the execution of prisoners currently entitled to commutation, as well as
restricting other rights of those under sentence of death;
- pointing out that the retrospective application of the Bill in the case of
prisoners who would otherwise benefit from the Pratt and Morgan ruling
contravenes fundamental principles of international human rights law;
- urging them to oppose the Bill;
- welcoming the legislation proposed in the Offences Against the Person
(Amendment) Bill 1996 (which is also being presented to parliament in the near
future), which would remove mandatory death sentences for crime involving murder
by introducing a charge of non-capital murder.
If possible, cite arguments against the death penalty:
- the death penalty has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than
any other punishment; execution is irrevocable and despite the most stringent
judicial safeguards, can be inflicted on the innocent;
- any attempt to increase the number of executions would be a retrograde step
and contrary to international trends to abolish the death penalty;
- acknowledge the seriousness of the crimes for which prisoners are sentenced
to death in Trinidad and Tobago, and express sympathy for the victims of violent
crime and their friends and families.
APPEALS TO:
Amnesty International has been advised that the following three independent
senators are particularly influential. They are prominent members of the
community appointed to Parliament by the Prime Minister.
Senator Martin Daly
115A Abercromby Street
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Fax: +1 809 627 5006
Salutation: Dear Senator
Senator Professor Kenneth Ramchand
2 Riverdale Terrace
Marracas
St Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago
Fax: +1 809 663 9684
Salutation: Dear Senator
Senator Diana Mahabir-Wyatt
3 Rust Street
Sinclair, Trinidad and Tobago
Fax: +1 809 622 7506
3
Salutation: Dear Senator
Leader of the Opposition:
Patrick Manning
Peoples' National Movement
Chepstow House, Port-of-Spain
Trinidad and Tobago
Fax: +1 809 625 3342 (if voice, aske for fax)
Telegrams: Patrick Manning, Chepstow House, Port of Spain, Trinidad
Salutation: Dear Sir
COPIES TO:
The Honourable Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj
Attorney General
Office of the Attorney General
Winsure Building, 24-28 Richmond Street
Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Fax: +1 809 625 0470
Trinidad Guardian
The Letters Editor
PO Box 122
22-24 St Vincent Street
Port-of-Spain
Trinidad and Tobago
Fax: +1 809 625 7211
and to diplomatic representatives of Trinidad and Tobago accredited to your
country.
PLEASE SEND APPEALS IMMEDIATELY. Check with the International Secretariat,
or your Section Office, if sending appeals after 20 November 1996.

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