There are now fears that Jamaica will resume its capital punishment programme, which has been on hold for the past 15 years pending a series of cases before the Privy Council - the ultimate court of appeal for about 16 Commonwealth countries.
Ironically, Albert Huntley, 39, sentenced to death for the murder of a teacher and who brought yesterday's test case, will not be hanged because of an earlier Privy Council ruling. Last year it reprieved all of those who had waited in appalling conditions on Jamaica's death row for more than five years. But 50 prisoners who have waited for less than five years, and who were awaiting the outcome of yesterday's case, may not be so lucky as Huntley.
He had argued that the secret system which enabled a judge alone to decide whether or not his offence merited the death penalty was unlawful. He was given no chance to make representations, no access to a lawyer, and was not given the judge's reasons.
The system began two years ago, when new Jamaican legislation categorised murder as "capital" or "non-capital". Those convicted then had to be reassessed. Lawyers for Mr Huntley argued that the process taking place in secret amounted to a breach of natural justice.
Yesterday the five Law Lords ruled that because Huntley had the right to make personal representations in an appeal before a three-judge court , there was no injustice. However, Graham Huntley, Huntley's solicitor, said yesterday: "This is a very disappointing judgment. The judges seem to be accepting that a breach of justice at the first stage can be remedied when it comes to an appeal. They also seem to have ignored the `non-capital' cases, who have no right of appeal and, therefore, no r
i ght to challenge decisions which may mean they are in prison for 25 or more years".
Human rights groups have long criticised the death penalty and conditions in which condemned prisoners are kept in Jamaica, and other Commonwealth countries.
Many are confined 23 hours a day in cells 6ft by 6ft. Bedding is a sheet of foam on the floor with a plastic bucket for a lavatory. Lawyers say psychiatric and medical treatment is rarely available.
It was because detention under such circumstances for such a prolonged period was deemed cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that the Privy Council reprieved those waiting for five years. The Council, founded at the time of the Norman Conquest, was t
h e world's most powerful court at the height of the British Empire. Its judicial committee, also the court of appeal for the General Medical Council and the Church Commissioners, has been dubbed an impotent relic and some Commonwealth countries have broke n links.
Previous rulings, particularly those relating to capital punishment, have led many to regard it as an The Independent human rights court for the commonwealth. However, yesterday's ruling may now be tested by the UN Court of Human Rights.