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Judge Dreadful?

Chris Blackhurst and Phil Davison report on death-row battles in a former British colony
Saving condemned men from the gallows is something that happens to lawyers in America, to the heroes of John Grisham novels or in films like Dead Man Walking. It is not a practice with which lawyers in this country are familiar or for which they are prepared.

Sir George Brown, the 54-year-old Chief Justice of Belize, is doing his best to change all that. Currently, eight men reside on death row in Belize's Hattieville Prison. All look to the Privy Council in London as their last court of appeal. All told, some 20 people have received the death sentence in Belize in the past few years.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, may be independent now but it retains the system of using the Privy Council in London as its ultimate legal arbiter. Thanks to Sir George and his insistence that Belize upholds the death penalty for murder, barristers and solicitors used to dealing with (humdrum, by comparison) cases at the Old Bailey and English Crown Courts have found themselves absorbed in the nail-biting agony of last-minute stays and final, gut-wrenching pleas.

In his office in Belize, Sir George sees the English lawyers as an irritation, an obstacle in his attempt to impose justice on this small impoverished state and its 190,000 inhabitants. With their wigs and traditions and clever, plummy way of talking, the lawyers are an interfering throwback to Belize's imperial past.

What began as the local courts following the letter of the law and passing a death sentence for murder has taken on a frightening aspect. Concern is mounting among lawyers here and in Belize that the unfettered imposition of the gallows has become Sir George's personal crusade.

His style in the courtroom is described as ranting. He brooks no argument, he regards his decision as final. He has also started to claim he is being assisted by God and has erected loudspeakers in his court to deliver his fire and brimstone judgments.

There is not much anyone can do about it. Belize is a member of the Commonwealth but otherwise is entirely independent. As for Sir George, he is not only Belize's Chief Justice, he also sits on the country's "Mercy Committee", a body established to hear pleas of clemency. Such committees are common in former British territories where the death penalty still applies. What is not so common, though, is for a chief judge to sit on them. Since Sir George joined Belize's committee, no appeal for mercy has been upheld.

In London, barristers like Edward Fitzgerald QC and James Guthrie QC and solicitors Saul Lehfreund and Andrew McCoohey have become locked in a grim cycle of frantic telephone calls and faxes with lawyers in Belize, and desperate, anxious waiting.

Money is not their object. Under Belize's justice system, legal aid of pounds 100 is extended to those charged with murder. The accused must spend the money on their trial: no legal aid is available if they go to the country's Supreme Court or on again to the third and final stop, the Privy Council in London.

After he heard of the lawyers' work, Felix Dennis, one of the founders of Oz and latterly a multi-millionaire publisher, stepped in and met some of their air fares. Otherwise, all the costs come out of their own pockets.

To date, and to the growing frustration of Sir George, their efforts have been entirely successful: nobody has been hanged in recent years in Belize. The closest anyone came was in August last year when Herman Maheia and Pasqual Bull, two convicted murderers, were taken at 4am to the death cell, to be prepared for hanging at 8am. They were not allowed to see their family and friends, to say goodbye.

A Belize lawyer had been tipped off that a gravedigger had prepared graves for the two men. He checked and found that death notices had been issued. He phoned London which went into overdrive. At the peak of the holiday season, three law lords were found and persuaded to constitute a sitting of the Privy Council and to grant a stay of execution.

Even then the agony was not over. The six-hour difference meant the stay almost arrived too late. With the British High Commissioner out of town, it was the Deputy High Commissioner, Martin Lamport, who, armed with a fax from the Privy Council, woke up Dean Barrow, the Attorney-General. The first man scheduled to die, Pasqual Bull, had received his last rites and was strapped to a special harness ready to be hanged when the stay finally got through. He escaped death by 20 minutes.

Doubts about Sir George started to become serious in September last year. He installed a blaring public address system in his tiny courtroom and invited the creme de la creme of the legal profession, as well as human rights campaigners, to ensure they could hear him in full flow. Most of those invited were not quite sure why they had been asked. By the time they had heard the Chief Justice's conclusion - that a convicted murderer, Wilfred Lauriano, should hang - they were even more confused. Sir George had gone beyond the limits of a normal ruling. "He sounded more like a preacher, or Mussolini," said one of those present.

"I think the judgment is one which is not directly from me in person, but through me," Sir George declared. "It is one in which there is an inspiration ... the divine inspiration," he told the court. "On a day like today, our judicial process should be heavily impacted upon, not by me, but I give all this credit to the inspiration which goes to the glory of God."

The collective drawing of breath in Supreme Court Room Number One, against the traffic noise from Belize City's bustling Regent Street, was audible. "He's talkin' bullshit," said one leading lawyer and human rights advocate. "This man gotta go."

In his first ever newspaper interview last week, Sir George told the Independent on Sunday he had simply meant to explain that he had prayed before reaching judgment. "There are times when you simply get down and..." he said, before breaking off.

The Belizean Bar Association is currently discussing how to encourage Sir George's early retirement - eight years earlier than the usual age, 62. Although the association has no say in the matter, it is lobbying the Belizean government and parliament to take action.

Wilfred Lauriano has appealed. His lawyers will argue that Belize's death penalty, though in the statutes, contravenes a constitutional clause which forbids "inhuman or degrading punishment". According to his lawyers, another man has confessed to the same murder, saying Lauriano was not involved.

For now, Lauriano is on death row in Hattieville Prison, little more than a concrete shelter in the middle of nowhere, its barred windows serving as air-conditioning or heating depending on the time of day. The men peer through, their tattooed arms protruding, gazing blankly at a passing visitor.

"They're mostly good boys. Some have found God, some not yet. They read, listen to their Walkmans," said Bernard Adolphus, the prison governor. In his office, he keeps a noose handy, just in case Sir George should finally defeat the Privy Council and the English lawyers.

Another death row inmate is Adolph "Blinds" Harris, 24, a one-eyed convict who shot a woman outside a Belize City dance hall in 1993. If Sir George's version of justice prevails, Harris will swing from Hattieville's crude gallows as soon as possible. "He should be executed," Sir George said, simply. Belizean lawyers fear it could happen in the New Year.

"As sure as night follows day, they will try to hang him," said one. "They won't hang him now. Christmas spirit and all that. But wait till the New Year."

Harris does not have the benefit of someone else coming forward to claim the murder. But at a hearing on 13 December his local attorneys will tell Sir George that executing him would be "inhuman and degrading", and therefore unconstitutional.

Alfred Codrington was granted a stay of execution by the Privy Council. He was convicted of murder but was not asked to give evidence himself, so his defence of provocation was never heard.

There may be more to the doubts about Sir George than meets the eye. "We can't have a Chief Justice who's not well," one Belize lawyer said. He was referring to the fact that Sir George is suffering from an unexplained illness which has caused seizures, sometimes in court. Pushing aside a giant electric typewriter, he showed how Sir George "froze, then twitched" during court cases. "Then it's over and he doesn't seem aware anything happened."

Under the front-page headline "The illness of Sir George", the weekly Belize Times wrote in September that Belize was "abuzz" with the news that the judge had acted strangely during a funeral service a few days earlier.

"Sir George, apparently in the grips of the disorder, left his pew in the midst of the sacerdotal rites, wandered behind the altar attempting to open windows and eventually seating himself alongside the Bishop. There he remained until the end of the funeral."

In an interview, Sir George was all smiles - a calm, dignified figure, who sees himself as grappling with the twin evils of squalid crime and imperial arrogance. A football enthusiast, he said he was a "midfield general" in his school and college soccer teams and now coaches a local youth side known as "The Brown Bombers". He supported Manchester United "until they started getting violent".

Asked about his reported illness, he said: "I've been suffering seizures, generally when I'm totally exhausted. I've been getting treatment, both here and in the US, to try to identify it and what causes it. But they haven't really. They play around with different drugs to see whether it was from any blow I might have suffered.

"A hospital in Los Angeles described it as sub-clinical but couldn't really pinpoint it. It happened to me once in my car at the Belcan junction outside Belize City. Local taxi drivers thought I was drunk but I wasn't."

Turning to legal matters, Sir George, who was knighted in the 1991 New Year's honours list, accused the Privy Council of "academic dishonesty" and suggested it should be abolished. "It is an abuse of the whole courts process. It acts as if there is no finality to the judicial process," he said. "Our constitution says the Supreme Court will have the final say and there's no appeal from that. But here you have a court, the Privy Council, which can act without any sort of guidelines at any time at all.

"Unregulated, operating as it does now, certainly the administration of justice is adversely affected."

Even many of Sir George's critics among the local bar favour abolishing the role of the Privy Council, described by one Belizean as "a bunch of stuffy white guys wearing wigs, passing the port, puffing cigars and making decisions on things they know nothing about."

His views touch a popular, raw nerve. "He may be wrong. He may be defiant. But this is not a crazy man. This is a man who's fed up," said a local journalist.

A straw poll in Belize City suggested that most Belizeans, concerned by rising crime, favoured executing the men on death row. Many criticised the Privy Council for commuting to 20 years the death sentence on Linsberth Logan, who slit his girlfriend's throat. The Privy Council found that the girl had provoked Logan by saying she had another man.

Most Belizeans were also shocked by the release this year of Ellis Taibo, who had been on death row for two different murders. His first death penalty was reduced to five years after he claimed "self-defence" because his victim was a homosexual.

On the record, lawyers in London will say little about Sir George for fear of upsetting him and in case they ruin their clients' life-or-death struggle. "It is quite freaky what is going on," said one lawyer. "We do not know what to do about him. Other judges in Belize are embarrassed by him. They are embarrassed when he attacks the Privy Council but they don't really know how to remove him."

The London lawyers' frantic battle with the Chief Justice of Belize has taken them over. Everything they have ever done in their working lives, said one of them, has paled into insignificance. The worst that can be handed down in this country is a life sentence, which, said one, "is nothing, because at least there is still life, there is still hope. It makes you realise just how lucky we are here".