The Privy Council halts Caribbean hangings

To hang or not to hang, that seems to be the question dominating the Caribbean political landscape. On one side, standing shoulder to shoulder to a man (no women), are the pro-hanging attorneys-general of the Caribbean states; on the other is the Privy Council, responding in complex legalese to the barbarism of its former colonial subjects.

One would have thought that the former colonial subjects would be in the vanguard of progress and that these law lords, mired in centuries of conservatism, would be the representatives of diehard reaction. Alas, the opposite seems to be the case.

After the execution of nine men in less than a week in Trinidad and Tobago, including two cases where the attorney-general, the director of public prosecutions and the prime minister failed to disclose vital evidence in their possession, the Law Lords had to intervene.

They had more or less settled the question of capital punishment. They ruled in the 1993 Pratt and Morgan case - involving two convicted Jamaican murderers - that, after five years on death row, any prisoner would have suffered cruel and unusual punishment, and should therefore have his or her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Thus, case law would in effect hold the front line against hanging until the political arm of the state caught up.

But Trinidad and Tobago, under a new attorney-general, Ramesh Maharaj, decided last year to leapfrog the long line of murder cases in a determined attempt to hang a drug lord, Dole Chadee, and his gang. In order to empanel a jury, Maharaj grabbed passers-by, folks who were having a day out on the beach, and swore them in.

"Hang them in the square/And let everybody hear/Beat them with the cat/All who see bound to done with that": Lord Caruso, a local bard from Grenada, dug deeply into the people's emotional confusion as far back as 1961 to produce a calypso that was essentially a statement of barbarism.

In the last few weeks, however, the Privy Council has commuted the death sentences of seven men on death row in Jamaica. It has laid down for the future a process of appeals that will easily take more than five years. Pratt and Morgan has thus returned with a vengeance.

The attorneys-general are now unanimous in their desire to get rid of the Privy Council. They want their final court of appeal to be based in the Caribbean. This means setting up a new court, with carefully selected hanging judges who are guaranteed to ignore Pratt and Morgan, and execute hundreds of men and women throughout the Caribbean.

No argument convinces these harbingers of bloodlust. Britain has long abolished capital punishment, but not so long ago, the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six would have had their necks snapped. For all its faults, Britain, even in the days of hanging, had an advanced and developed legal system. Imagine what could happen in the Caribbean, where the judicial system is rickety and the tradition of investigative journalism has not in 50 years produced a single successful campaign to clear one among the many who have been hanged.

Walk through any community in the Caribbean and you will hear claims of murderous injustice drip from the lips of the poor.

Into the midst of all the nationalist hullabaloo triggered by the Privy Council ruling steps Pierre Sane, the head of Amnesty International. He arrived in Trinidad, called a press conference at the home of a British diplomat (on British soil, if you please) and let fly on the issue of human rights in the Caribbean. He drew attention to the failure of political officials to disclose evidence in the case of Dole Chadee, and blasted Ramesh Maharaj as the head of a barbarian pack.

As I write from here in Grenada, Maharaj and his fellow attorneys-general are snorting like wounded bulls. Pile on the pressure, I say.

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 16 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Woolf