Caribbean leaders know that hanging wins votes

Many of my friends in the law (I was at the Middle Temple once) seem confused at the giant step backwards into judicial murder now practised by their Caribbean counterparts. They are entitled to be, even though Caribbean attorney- generals chide them about interference in the internal affairs of independent countries.

In St Lucia recently a crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the High Court baying for blood. A murderer, after spending five years on death row, had applied to the judge for his sentence to be commuted. He quoted the case of Pratt and Morgan where, more than ten years ago, the Privy Council in London (still a final court of appeal for some Caribbean countries) ruled that so long a period on death row constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge in St Lucia, bound by case law as she was, found for the murderer and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

The demonstrators wanted to carry out the death penalty themselves and made no bones about what the verdict should be. They resented, they said, being dictated to by "a bunch of old dodgy white men in the Privy Council in England".

This frenzy has been part of Caribbean jurisprudence in the past couple of years or so, following some pretty gruesome drug-related murders. In Trinidad, a man called Dole Chadee, known as "the Don", ordered the execution of an entire family in lieu of an outstanding drug debt. With so many murder trials in the offing, Chadee and the executioners, if they had taken their place in the queue, would probably have spent many years of uncertainty awaiting their fate and thus qualified for "cruel and unusual punishment". So their trial leap-frogged others, the attorney-general bringing it to the front of the queue in record time.

Meanwhile Chadee was ordering the execution of witnesses from his prison cell. Before he, too, was executed, one witness, a policeman, gave a tape-recorded statement. He said that one of the accused, called Sankerali, knew nothing about what his co-defendants were up to. He went along with them for a ride, he thought, and not a murder spree.

As the execution date approached, the tape was passed to the president of Trinidad and Tobago, who in turn passed it to the attorney-general. The latter agreed with the director of public prosecutions and the prime minister that the evidence was of no consequence. Sankerali's lawyer was never given the evidence, lest the Privy Council rule in his favour. The attorney-general was heard to say: "Hang everybody."

He and the prime minister used to run a human rights organisation that campaigned against capital punishment. Now they are in power they know that judicial murder is a popular cause that can win elections.

Now there is a desperate attempt by Caribbean governments to set up a final court of appeal to replace the Privy Council. In that way they can get around Pratt and Morgan and any other Privy Council judgment that binds them.

But I fear that the only kind of court that could possibly emerge out of Caribbean jurisprudence is a kangaroo court. The Privy Council is constantly amazed by the awful quality of Caribbean judges. Sheer incompetence and violation of procedures frequently have to be rectified in London.

At one time, Pratt and Morgan seemed the height of success. Caribbean lawyers did not need to stir up passions by going for an outright abolition of the death penalty; Pratt and Morgan amounted to de facto abolition. But unstable Caribbean governments increasingly need the courts to provide verdicts that are politically palatable, and the independence of the judiciary is slowly becoming something of the past.

Nevertheless, I say that the Privy Council should be cut loose from the Caribbean legal profession. Let them stew in their own juice. People get the governments and judiciary they deserve.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children