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Ramesh right and wrong
Posted: Wednesday, July 10, 2002

EDITOR: In comments attributed to him following the recent ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), ex-Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj said that the death penalty is "not a violation of international law". In that respect, he is right.

However, what he overlooks is that under international law its use must be strictly limited, and that it must not be applied arbitrarily. That is where the violation occurs in Trinidad and Tobago, because the death penalty is mandatory for murder and has to be passed in all cases, regardless of mitigating factors that could warrant a lesser sentence.

Indeed, Mr Maharaj had gone some way towards acknowledging that when in government, proposing amending the law to incorporate different categories of murder, not all of which would attract capital punishment.

So the death sentence as it stands in Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere in the Caribbean, does breach international law.

This was recognised last year by the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal (ECCA), when it outlawed the mandatory death sentence on the grounds that it constituted both arbitrary deprivation of life and inhuman punishment. It said "the mandatory death penalty ...... robs those upon whom sentence is passed of any opportunity whatsoever to have the court consider mitigating circumstances even as an irrevocable punishment is meted out to them. The dignity of human life is reduced by a law that compels a court to impose death by hanging upon all convicted of murder, granting none an opportunity to have the individual circumstances of his case considered by the court that is to pronounce sentence".

In reaching its majority decision, the ECCA took into account constitutional decisions from India and the United States, as well as the IACHR and (United Nations) Human Rights Committee. And it held that the constitutional right not to be subjected to inhuman punishment should not be regarded as distinct from the same provision under international treaties.

The ECCA's ruling was subsequently upheld by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

In the minority of countries that continue to use capital punishment, the English-speaking Caribbean is one of the last areas in the Commonwealth where it is mandatory. We hope the government of Trinidad and Tobago will fulfil its obligations under international law and comply with the IACHR's order to bring it to an end.

Yours faithfully
Shelagh Simmons
Caribbean Justice
PO Box 216

Caribbean Justice is a voluntary organisation which campaigns for an end to the death penalty in the English-speaking Caribbean. Its patrons are Tony Benn, Sir Ludovic Kennedy and Benjamin Zephaniah.

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