Four prisoners yesterday had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment, after acting Chief Justice Ian Chang ruled that their over a decade long stints on death row amounted to inhumane treatment.
The four are Noel Thomas—who has been on death row for 25 years—Lawrence Chan, Muntaz Ali and Rabindranauth Deo, also known as Ravindra Deo, who were all convicted of murder.
Chang’s decision was based on applications made by the men’s attorneys. Chan and Thomas were represented by attorney Nigel Hughes while attorney Ronald Burch-Smith appeared for Ali and former judge Jainarayan Singh appeared for Deo.
In a brief comment to this newspaper, Hughes said that the ruling was in line with existing Privy Council and Caribbean Court of Justice rulings to the effect that the sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment in light of the amount of time they were on death row. Hughes further contended that because of the years they spent on death row, the men should have been released and he planned on taking steps to secure his clients’ freedom. The lawyer pointed out that he is being guided by the ruling in the Pratt and Morgan case handed down by the Privy Council, which held that a convict on death row in excess of five years is more than inhumane. All four men have been on death row for over ten years, he said.
Although the PPP/C administration has repeatedly voiced support for the death penalty, the last executions at the Georgetown Prisons were on August 25, 1997. Since then, several death-row inmates managed to defer their executions by mounting legal challenges, while no new death warrants have been read to other convicts pending the court cases. At the same time, the administration, during the tenure of then president Bharrat Jagdeo, committed to holding public consultations on the death penalty and other contentious human rights areas, in submissions to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These consultations are still to be initiated.
Noel Thomas was convicted along with Mohammed Yassin and they were both sentenced to hang in 1988 for the murder of Yassin’s brother. Thomas appealed the conviction and won a retrial but was sentenced again to hang on December 6, 1992 by Justice Claudette Singh and, in June of 1994, the Court of Appeal later dismissed his appeal to have that conviction overturned.
The first death warrant was read to him on February 1, 1996 and he was scheduled to be hung on February 5 of the same year but this never materialised. In 1998, he applied to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations pursuant to the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and on May 7, 1998, the UN committee recommended that he be released but he remained in prison and his second death warrant was read to him on September 9, 1999. Hughes then applied for a stay of execution and Thomas has remained in prison since. His co-accused Yassin died in prison.
In the case of Chan, he was sentenced to death by then Justice Cecil Kennard on December 20, 1995. He appealed the decision but his action was dismissed on June 13, 1997. He had also applied to UN Human Rights Commission and on October 13, 1997 the UN opined that his sentence should be commuted to life although the government had never responded to his submissions to the body.
In November 2010, Chan had sued the state and one of the grounds he had listed was that his brother, John Chan, who was also charged with the murder, was called as a witness against him after the state set him free by entering nolle prosequi against him. He had asked for his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment.
Chan had also said that he was assigned a state counsel who was absent for the first two days of his trial. He had said that his attorney obtained an interlocutory stay of execution in February 2000. However, he was never informed of or invited to the deliberations of the Mercy Committee. In addition to Chan and his brother, Godfrey Rodrigues was also jointly charged with the murders of Raphael Seecharran and Ramong, but he died in prison.
Ali, meanwhile, was convicted and sentenced to hang along with Shireen Khan and Terrence Sahadeo for the murder of 18-year-old Roshana Kassim of Sheet Anchor, East Canje. Khan has since died while Sahadeo remains in prison. It was not clear for which murder Deo was convicted.