'Interfering anachronism' gives hope among squalor

Heather Mills reports on Belize's challenge to the Privy Council
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The Independent Online
Outside Belize's death row, the stench from the open running sewer is overpowering. Inside, the 10 men sentenced to the gallows battle with flies and mosquitoes attracted by the stink.

For 23-and-a-half hours a day, they are confined to the cells, which open on to the sewer. Some who now share the cells - the top floor of a concrete block of the Hattiville prison outside Belize City - are sleeping on the floor. They rely on family and visiting charities to supplement their basic bread and water prison diet.

That is how it was last 22 August, when the monotonous calm of the "row" was suddenly broken by the serving of execution warrants on two of the inmates. Pasqual Bull and Herman Mejia were about to hang at 8am on 25 August - the first to be executed in Belize for 10 years. Yet both had given notice of appeal to the Privy Council in London, and that should have meant an automatic stay on execution, pending their appeals.

The warrants sent panic throughout death row. No less than eight were intending to take their cases to London.

Bull and Mejia, both convicted of murder, were not allowed to alert their families or lawyers. They were taken out, weighed and measured for the "drop", and on the morning of the planned execution, they were given the last rites at 7am. But Belize is a small place with about 190,000 people and, unknown to the men, word of their imminent death had got out. Mejia's family had heard the news from the local gravedigger the evening before the planned execution and lawyers were alerted.

It began a frantic night of telephone calls and faxes between the men's lawyers in Belize and London, the Privy Council and the territory's law officers.

The Privy Council issued a stay but throughout the night efforts to relay the news to the Attorney General were thwarted. He had not returned calls and fax machines appeared to have been switched off. It was only when the British High Commissioner in Belize personally tracked him down, that the executions were called off. It was at 7.30am - 30 minutes before the first execution.

But the intervention raised the threat of a constitutional crisis, with the Belize government regarding Privy Council interventions as "unlawful" and lawyers and opposition groups fearful for the consequences for human rights and lack of checks on any abuse of power in the independent territory.

Last month, Sir George Brown, the Chief Justice of Belize, said that the Privy Council had been acting outside its powers and the government need not abide by its rulings.

That could have fatal consequences for the men on death row. Four currently have appeals pending before the Law Lords in London who make up the Privy Council, claiming they are the victims of a miscarriage of justice. Four others, including Bull and Mejia, are seeking leave to appeal.

Yesterday Saul Lehrfreund, a lawyer from Simons, Muirhead and Burton, which represents seven of the eight in London, said: "I am extremely concerned about the well-being of our clients, whose constitutional right to life and the protection of the law could be seriously violated by the government, if it ignored the Privy Council."

The men include Alfred Coddington, 34, convicted in 1993 of shooting Winston Moguel dead in the street and served with a death warrant last December. Coddington was never called to give evidence and his defence of provocation and self defence - he claims Mr Moguel attacked him as he cycled by - were never put to the jury.

Another is Ellis Taibo, convicted in 1992 of killing Gill Oborn, a voluntary worker. He maintains he had an alibi for the night of the killing and the only evidence against him appears to be a description of someone wearing similar clothes.

Mejia and Bull have both been convicted of double murders.

The government resentment of the Privy Council is not unique to Belize. Some of the 16 countries which still retain the Privy Council as the final court of appeal now view it as an interfering anachronism, far removed in miles and culture from their experiences.

With an electorate favouring capital punishment to combat crime, the governments resent the Law Lords in the Privy Council, who have reprieved many sentenced to death, including hundreds throughout the commonwealth in one landmark ruling which banned the execution of anyone detained for more than five years.

Last year, Trinidad and Tobago attracted international condemnation for executing Glen Ashby at the same time as a Privy Council order for stay of execution was being faxed through from London. A recent commission of inquiry concluded he had been unlawfully hanged.

Like Belize, some countries are now seeking to amend their constitution and divorce themselves from the Council.

However, according to Godfrey Smith, Secretary of the Bar in Belize, there is a strong belief among lawyers, human rights workers and others that until another final check or balance is in place - such as a court of appeal for the Caribbean, for example - the Privy Council is an essential safeguard. Many dependent and independent territories are so small that getting a fair trial is difficult. Publicity means juries often come to cases with a fixed opinion, there is a fear of executive influence and, with no legal aid, the best lawyers are unlikely to take on the life and death cases.

The Chief Justice's ruling is being challenged in both the Belize courts and in the Privy Council. But in a move which concerns lawyers for the men on death row, the Belize government is refusing to attend Privy Council hearings.

In the meantime, the men on Belize's death row hope that its jurisdiction continues to prevail. Mr Lehrfreund echoed the concerns of some lawyers in Belize when he said: "I am extremely worried that the authorities in Belize will use the judgement of the Chief Justice as justification for the execution of those on death row - despite the lawful intervention of the Privy Council.

"Until Belize amends its constitution to abolish appeals to the Council, its own conduct must be based on respect for the rule of law for all its citizens - even those convicted of murder."