Death-row appeals spark crisis for justice

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The fate of eight men whose executions have been halted by a British court is threatening a constitutional crisis in the Commonwealth.

The Privy Council - the final Court of Appeal for about 16 Commonwealth countries - has stayed the imminent executions of six of the eight on Belize's death row, pending appeal. Last year, it reprieved two more, whose murder convictions were reduced to manslaughter.

But in an extraordinary ruling last month, Belize's Chief Justice, Sir George Brown, maintained the Privy Council's intervention was unlawful, thus paving the way for the men's potential executions. What is worrying human rights lawyers is that preceding his 13-page judgment, he said he had received "divine inspiration".

Founded at the time of the Norman Conquest, the Privy Council became, at the height of the British Empire, the most powerful court in the world. But now the Law Lords who make up its judicial committee deal with only about 130 cases a year from both dependent and independent territories.

While many in the Commonwealth have come to view the Privy Council as a kind of human rights court, operating in the same way that the European Court in Strasbourg sits in judgment on the UK, governments in such countries as Belize, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are increasingly viewing it as an interfering relic of colonialism. They believe that the British judges are too far removed from the reality of life in the Caribbean.

The issue of capital punishment has brought matters to a head, as governments try to deal with ever-increasing murder rates and voters who support hanging.

Over the years, the Privy Council has saved hundreds of lives throughout the Commonwealth territories.

Belize is one of those independent countries which is currently seeking to amend its constitution and abolish appeals to London. But to do so, the ruling United Democratic Party needs to secure a three- quarters majority in Parliament and with only a slim majority, it is unlikely to succeed. Until its does, the Privy Council maintains the rule of law.

In August, the Belize government tried unlawfully and in secret to execute two of the eight men, who had already given notice of their intention to appeal to the Privy Council. It was only after frantic transatlantic calls and the direct intervention of the Privy Council through the British High Commissioner that the executions were prevented.

But that intervention prompted the Chief Justice to act. Citing a pre- independence proclamation, he claimed that the Law Lords in London were unlawfully and unconstitutionally accepting appeals out of time.

The Privy Council has been made aware of the challenge to its jurisdiction and, together with the Foreign Office, is monitoring events.

But the men's lawyers fear the Belize authorities may follow its Chief Justice's ruling and ignore the stays of execution, prompting other countries to follow suit.

Trinidad and Tobago attracted international condemnation for hanging a prisoner last year, in defiance of the Privy Council.