Several death row inmates have recently had their sentences commuted to life in prison, while a few new convicts have joined those remaining on death row, raising questions on the issue of the death penalty once again and whether it should be abolished.
Attorney General Anil Nandlall believes that consultations are needed to definitively address this “vexed issue”.
Members of the local bar are divided; some are in favour of the death penalty while others are against it particularly because of the inhumane conditions inmates are left to dwell in indefinitely while waiting for their sentences to be carried out.
The death penalty is carried out in Guyana by way of hanging. There has not been a hanging in some 18 years.
“The issue of the abolition of the death penalty is and has been a vexed question throughout the English-speaking Caribbean,” Nandlall said in a recent interview. He said the reality was that Caribbean jurisdictions have demonstrated “a settled and clear disinclination to impose the death penalty”. This, the attorney general said, was evident in a number of cases dating back as far as two decades.
He said a number of judicial innovations have been utilized in declaring that the death penalty violates fundamental rights provisions in the constitution including the right to life, the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment and the right to a fair trial within reasonable time.
The interpretations given to these constitutional provisions by judges render the death penalty unconstitutional and unenforceable. “This reality coupled with the lobbying done by local as well as international human rights protagonists have compounded the situation for governments throughout the Caribbean,” Nandlall said, adding that a large number of ordinary Caribbean people, including Guyanese, insist on the retention of the death penalty. “This has presented quite a conundrum,” he said.
In terms of Guyana, “I suppose we may have to resort to consultations before a definitive stand can be taken on the matter.” Referring to the gruesome killing of a four-year-old Linden boy with which a man has been charged, Nandlall said such a case “makes a powerful statement which would receive the popular support of the law abiding public for the retention of the death penalty. So it is an issue that has various dimensions and it is not one that one can rashly conclude on, hence the need for more discussions and consultations…”
Nandlall said it is of significance to note that the 10th Parliament amended the Criminal Law Offences Act (2010) and made the death penalty only mandatory in a certain category of murder cases. These include persons in the security forces who are murdered during the execution of their duties; murders calculated to cause fear in the public and contract murders among others. These may also draw a penalty of life imprisonment. Other murders will attract life imprisonment or another term the court considers appropriate but not less than 15 years.
Nandlall noted that recently one judge had ruled that the death penalty was never mandatory in Guyana.
22 and counting
Prison head Dale Erskine told Stabroek News last week that there are 22 prisoners on death row and they are all men. They are housed in individual/isolated cells in the Camp Street Prison.
The recent additions are Nazrudeen ‘Buddy’ Jhoot, 21, of Cotton Tree, West Coast Berbice, sentenced to death by Justice Brassington Reynolds in the Berbice High Court on Jan 31.
Jhoot murdered Khemlall Mangal, 43, in August 2008. He was 17 at the time and Mangal was his girlfriend’s father.
On December 19, 2012 Dwayne Jordon was sentenced to death for murdering his wife, Claudine Rampersaud at Den Amstel, West Coast Demerara on June 14, 2007.
Justice Navindra Singh in handing down the sentence had said that death should be the penalty for serious crime when the court believes that there is no regard for human life.
Meanwhile, a number of prisoners recently had they sentences commuted to life in prison. These include Oral Hendricks, who was sentenced to death on February 6, 1996, for murdering three children, aged two, four and seven years old; Ganga Deolall; Terrence Sahadeo; brothers Kornel and Daniel Vaux; and brothers Bharatraj and Lallman Mulai, who had been on death row for almost two decades.
Attorney Nigel Hughes who has filed applications on behalf of death row inmates told Stabroek News that he does not support the death penalty.
“However if as a country we determine that we keep it on the books we must ensure that the justice system ensures that the margin for errors of judgment is almost nonexistent,” he said. “We are so far away from ensuring reliable investigations, prosecutions and the administration of justice that successful appeals against convictions are almost routine.”
Hughes said the absence of sentencing guidelines and guidelines for accepting manslaughter pleas in cases where the case of murder is significant, not only complicates the issue of fair and uniform punishment but “perhaps magnifies the real possibility of miscarriages of justice.
“Our humanity as a society is severely challenged when we leave persons languishing on death row for years while we fail to convene the Committee for the Prerogative of Mercy. The fact that more than 80% of the persons who end up on death row come from the poorest and least socially equipped among us should cause us serious disquiet.”
As if that were not enough, he added, “they have located the gallows in the middle of death row. [This] speaks loudly about our civility and concern for human dignity.”
Last June, Hughes was successful in getting the sentence of his client, Noel Thomas commuted to life. Four other death row inmates also had their sentences commuted: Muntaz Ali, Lawrence Chan, Vivekanand Singh and Hafiz Hussein.
In a brief comment to this newspaper then, Hughes said the ruling was in line with existing Privy Council and Caribbean Court of Justice rulings to the effect that the sentences should be commuted in the light of the amount of time the inmates were on death row.
All of the men had been on death row for over ten years.
The Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) had declared Justice Ian Chang’s rulings “courageous”, and “a welcome rejoinder to the evasion and duplicity by popularity-pandering politicians over the years.”
It “spotlights the incompatibility of the medieval cruelty of the death penalty with evolving minimum humanitarian standards acceptable to the modern world.” Since the death penalty is irrevocable, the GHRA contended, any system of justice that retains it as a sentencing option is claiming there is no possibility of error.
Dr Arif Bulkan, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus, had said in 2010 that government needs to abolish the death penalty, noting that research has shown that it was not an effective deterrent to crime.
Faruk Sakur, the father of Jhoot, feels he was wronged. He said he is in total disagreement with the sentence and pointed to the fact that his son is still very young.
He said several things were brought to his attention during the trial and following the sentencing he learnt that the law states that you could not sentence a prison under the age of 18 to death. Sakur pointed out that his son was 17 at the time the offence was committed and that the judge should have taken that into consideration. Jhoot’s attorney has since filed an appeal.
‘The judge made a wrong decision,” Sakur said adding that it was clear that the killing was not intentional.
“I feel that he should have been given a second chance. He should be given some sentence maybe not life but something so that he could redeem himself.”
Sakur said the boy’s mother is distraught over the situation and they have been in contact with him. He said they know he is in a special cell in the Camp Street prison.
An attorney who supports the death penalty in principle said it should not be mandatory but should depend on the circumstances. She pointed out that the recent amendment to the Criminal Law (Offences) Act captures this.
“… What I find totally unacceptable is the imposition of the sentence when there is an apparent lack of political will or intention to actually execute,” the lawyer said noting that it was determined by the Privy Council decision in Pratt v Morgan that it was inhumane to have people on death row for inordinate periods.
She said this is now applicable to our jurisdiction by virtue of it being allowed by the CCJ in a Barbados case. “The bottom line is that if you have no intention to execute then don’t impose the sentence,” she said.