Judges uphold ex-colonies' death penalty

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The Independent Online

British judges have upheld the right of two Caribbean countries to impose mandatory death sentences for murder, in a judgment widely attacked by human rights lawyers.

British judges have upheld the right of two Caribbean countries to impose mandatory death sentences for murder, in a judgment widely attacked by human rights lawyers.

A special panel of nine judges hearing the appeal of three men convicted of murder, said the abolition of the death penalty was a matter for the parliaments of Trinidad and Tobago, and of Barbados. But in the cases before their panel, the three men's sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment.

The ruling was criticised yesterday as a missed opportunity to end the death penalty in the Caribbean.

The Privy Council, sitting as the final Court of Appeal of Trinidad and of Barbados, ruled that mandatory death penalty laws should remain in force. The majority judgment could not have been narrower - five law lords, led by Lord Hoffmann, voted to retain the mandatory death penalty while four, led by Lord Bingham of Cornhill, voted to abolish it. In a separate ruling the judges ended the mandatory death penalty in Jamaica.

The right of appeal to the Privy Council is a colonial hangover from the days Britain ruled these Caribbean countries.

The judges acknowledged the death penalty was "objectionable" and reflected the medieval common law of England. They said: "In Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados these laws have remained, in all essentials, unchanged. In Jamaica the law was changed, because the inhumanity of requiring the death penalty to be imposed on all defendants convicted of murder was recognised."

In reaching its decision the Privy Council recognised the high incidence of murder and the widespread use of firearms in Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.

The law lords said: "So long as those conditions prevail, and so long as a discretionary death sentence is retained, it may well be that judges in Jamaica will find it necessary, on orthodox sentencing principles, to impose the death sentence in a proportion of cases which is, by international standards, unusually high.

But they added: "Prevailing levels of crime and violence, however great the anxiety and alarm they understandably cause, cannot affect the underlying legal principle... that no one, whatever his crime, should be condemned to death without an opportunity to try and persuade the sentencing judge that he does not deserve to die."