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July 6, 2018
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July 6, 2018

T&T Gov’t should reform death penalty laws

The Church’s social justice arm is calling on the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to re-examine the imposition of the mandatory death penalty in all murder cases.

In a joint statement issued last Sunday with the regional death penalty abolition group, Greater Caribbean for Life (GCL), the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) invited the Government “to approve the necessary reforms to immediately overrule mandatory death penalty”.

The two bodies welcomed the June 27 judgement by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), Barbados’ highest appellate Court, which declared as unconstitutional, the mandatory death penalty as stated in section 2 of the Offences Against the Persons Act (OAPA), Ch 141, for persons convicted of murder in Barbados. Convictions under the section automatically attract mandatory death sentences without any consideration of the mitigating factors in their cases or their individual circumstances. The CCJ replaced the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 2005. 

CCSJ and GCL chair, Leela Ramdeen described the judgement as a landmark.

She said, “While society needs to defend itself from crime and violence and to uphold the value of the lives of its citizens, we should not sacrifice the values we seek to protect. GCL & CCSJ support an ethic of respect for all life. Our vision of building safe, just, and peaceful communities must not lead us to lose our humanity by hanging on to colonial laws that lead us to treat persons in inhuman and degrading ways.” 

Ramdeen continued: “There is a global movement towards the abolition of the death penalty which is a human rights issue. We have some way to go to achieve this in our Caribbean region. GCL & CCSJ welcome the opportunity that this judgement provides for a new national dialogue in our region about how we deal with crime and violence; how we restore respect for law and life; and how we protect and rebuild communities.”

According to the release, the CCJ judgement related to the consolidated appeal cases of Jabari Sensimania Nervais and Dwayne Omar Severin, who had been convicted of murder. They appealed their murder convictions and the constitutionality of the mandatory death sentence for murder in Barbados. Their appeals against conviction were dismissed and the CCJ ordered that they be brought before the Supreme Court of Barbados for re-sentencing.

In its judgement the CCJ stated that it “considered the state of the mandatory death penalty in Barbados for murder and found that it was indisputable that the nation, through its actions, had acknowledged that it had an obligation to remove such mandatory sentences imposed by section 2 of OAPA. 

“Barbados had also given undertakings to the CCJ and the Inter American Court of Human Rights to rectify the mandatory sentence which was reflected in the Barbados Privy Council’s consistent commutation of the mandatory death penalty.”

The CCJ held that section 11 of the Constitution, which gives the right to protection of the law, was enforceable. The court found that the mandatory death penalty breached this right as it “deprived a court of the opportunity to exercise the quintessential judicial function of tailoring the punishment to fit the crime”.

The CCJ ruled that the savings clause, which had ‘saved’ the mandatory death penalty in Barbados, should be condemned. Laws should not be “calcified to reflect the colonial times”.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution also has the same savings clause, said the GCL-CCSJ release, and with this CCJ judgement, this country remains the only country in the Caribbean that imposes the mandatory death penalty. 

In a release from the Diocese of Bridgetown, Archbishop of Port of Spain and Apostolic Administrator of the diocese, Jason Gordon welcomed the judgement. He said the death penalty does not act as a deterrent for violent crimes. “In fact it supports the very act which took a life. We cannot teach respect for life by taking life. The mandatory death penalty left no room for a judge to consider mitigating circumstances. It did not allow for conversion, mercy or forgiveness.”

In July 2016, Bishops of the Antilles Episcopal Conference issued a statement on capital punishment during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Although appalled by the rise of violent crime and expressing solidarity with victims, they urged politicians and citizens regionally to abolish capital punishment/the death penalty and embrace a more restorative justice approach to crime and violence.

The bishops in particular encouraged the governments of T&T and Barbados to amend legislation to remove the mandatory imposition of the death penalty.