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Grieving families wait for closure

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, January 29 2012

click on pic to zoom in
RupandAi Ramsaran, centre, grieves the loss of her two sons, Kasinath and Ravi, at their funeral service in Chaguanas recently. Others in photo are Ka...
RupandAi Ramsaran, centre, grieves the loss of her two sons, Kasinath and Ravi, at their funeral service in Chaguanas recently. Others in photo are Ka...

Her limp body overcome with grief, Rupandai Ramsaran caressed framed photographs of her two sons, murdered fishermen Kasinath, 31, and Ravi, 26, during their funeral service in Felicity, Chaguanas, last Thursday.

“My children not supposed to come home so. Look how they come home,” she wailed, in an apparent reference to their sealed caskets.

A short distance away, anguished relatives of Pream Squires, 45, who had accompanied the men on the fishing expedition, were also mourning his loss at the Chaguanas Roman Catholic Church.

Days before, the fishermen’s lives were unceremoniously snuffed out by murderers while at sea. Autopsies revealed that Kasinath was strangled while his brother died from shock and haemorrhage consistent with multiple chop wounds about the head and neck. Squires was believed to have been left in the sea to drown.

Two Sea Lots men, Jamal Francis, 26, and Brandon Peltier, 18, have since been charged with the murders of the three fishermen.

While the families of the victims, as has been the case with other families across the country in recent months, may receive some closure to this tragedy with the arrest of perpetrators, another question equally asked is whether they will ever truly recover from the sudden, horrific loss of their loved ones and lead normal lives?

And although it is considered unlawful to take matters into one’s own hands, many have vowed to agitate for the necessary measures to be put in place to reintroduce the hangman as a means of avenging the deaths of those whom they have lost to crime.

Indeed, the three killings and others over the past few months have prompted impassioned calls for the return of the death penalty, which was last carried out in this country in 1999 with the hangings of notorious drug lord, Dole Chadee and eight of his accomplices, under the stewardship of former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. Maharaj has consistently held that the death penalty is the law and should be implemented.

There is some consternation for citizens who have been calling for the return of the hangman after losing loved ones to the criminal element, especially after seeing many of the perpetrators escaping the law and continuing their illegal activities, or merely getting life sentences in the absence of the hangman.

The frustration at seeing murderers alive and well while their loved ones are no longer on the earth has brought a raging debate from families and the population on whether the death penalty should be re-implemented.

However, the People’s Partnership Government, which has publicly advocated its return, a call which has been led by Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner, may have a fight on its hands in getting the requisite support from the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) to secure passage of the legislation in the Parliament.

Currently, the failure to reintroduce the death penalty, as a potential deterrent to would-be murderers, has been the subject of an apparent blame game between the Government and Opposition, with both groups voicing reasons as to why the legislation — the Capital Offences Amendment Bill — had not been passed in the Parliament when it was last debated almost one year ago.

In endorsing the return of the death penalty last week, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, minced no words in blaming the Opposition for the fact that the legislation to reinstitute hangings in this country has not been passed.

Speaking to reporters last Saturday, after delivering the feature address at the formal commissioning of a Portable Water Treatment Plant in Talparo, Persad-Bissessar said although the death penalty was on the law books of the land, “the lack of support from the Opposition on the last occasion prevented it from going through”.

“And, so, we will try again because we have to find ways to reduce the crime rate,” she added.

She also said the Government will conduct public consultations on the issue to get some feedback before coming back to the Parliament with the legislation.

On Monday, however, during his bi-monthly press conference at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition in Port-of-Spain, Dr Keith Rowley said the PNM will continue to vote against the bill once it was returned to the Parliament in its existing form.

The bill had sought to categorise murders, an issue to which the Opposition took serious umbrage. Rowley said any move to support the categorisation of murders in TT would have made it impossible to carry out the death penalty. He argued that the Government would have been free to implement it once they had met the requirements of the Pratt and Morgan judgment of the Privy Council, which ruled that convicted killers be executed within five years of sentencing.

“So they could bring the bill as often as they like, they could take as much PR (public relations) advice as they like, they could seek to demonise the PNM as often as they like ... and as often as they bring that particular bill to the Parliament, we will vote it down,” Rowley insisted, suggesting instead that the Government bring legislation to limit appeals from convicted killers to 18 months.

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan told Sunday Newsday on Wednesday that he had written to Rowley on two occasions last year, urging him to state the PNM’s position on the death penalty so that the legislation could have returned to the Parliament within a short time frame. He said Rowley was yet to respond to the two letters.

In his first letter, dated April 12, 2011, a copy of which was obtained by Sunday Newsday, Ramlogan noted that the main concern of the Opposition “appeared to be the possible entrenchment of the right to appeal to international bodies in the Constitution”.

The AG added, “Whilst I am not of this view, in the interest of obtaining your support for this critical law, I am willing to consider any proposal your party may have that can effect the necessary change to the Constitution without codifying the right to appeal to international bodies in the Constitution. If the Opposition has a different formula to deal with such applications within the Constitution, I am prepared to consider it.”

In the second letter, dated June 1, 2011, Ramlogan told Rowley he had not received any response from the Opposition on the matter.

“I note that I am not yet in receipt of your party’s position on dealing with the issue and hope that it was not an oversight,” Ramlogan had said in the letter.

Ramlogan said the Government had heeded the advice of eminent Queen’s Counsel, Sir Fenton Ramsahoye, and senior counsels, Martin Daly and Russell Martineau, when the bill had come up for debate in the Parliament early last year.

“The Opposition refused to support the bill while ironically maintaining they were in support of the death penalty,” he said.

“We made several concessions in the hope that they would support the bill but they did not. We felt it necessary to categorise murders like they do in the United States, so the judge would have some flexibility. We took in all the circumstances but they objected to that and did not support it.”

Ramlogan said in the absence of a stated position, it was now “difficult to reconcile the Opposition’s actions with their declared support for the death penalty”.The Prime Minister had also complained about Rowley’s failure during her speech at her two-year anniversary celebration at Rienzi Complex in Couva on Tuesday.

But the Opposition Leader, speaking during a news conference on Wednesday, made no apologies for ignoring the letters. He claimed the Government had not considered their views when the matter came up for debate last year.

Rowley said while the current law mandated the death sentence for anyone guilty of murder, the bill, as presented by the Government, created three classes of murder, which will ultimately determine whether or not a person should be hanged. He argued that once the bill changes the Constitution to alter the mandatory death sentence, one can deduce that persons charged for murder would have indefinite access to the courts to challenge the designation of their crime.

Rowley said the move to categorise the murders would also have far-reaching implications for the manner in which the Privy Council handed down its rulings, with respect to constitutional motions and judicial reviews from accused persons trying to have their murder classified as one that could access a discretionary death penalty, rather than a mandatory one. He called for fresh legislation to be brought to the House.

In the meantime, the tit-for-tat scenario being played out between the Government and Opposition is not sitting well with many citizens, who have been clamouring to have the death penalty reinstituted, if only as a potential solution to the unbridled spate of murders and the untold pain which has been experienced by the families of victims of crime over the past decade.

Prominent criminal attorney, Vernon De Lima, SC, told Sunday Newsday that he had initially been opposed to the death penalty years ago, “but when I realised what was happening in Trinidad and Tobago about five years ago, it seems to me that the only ones benefitting from the non-implementation of it are the criminals”.

Saying that the criminals are usually fearless when committing murders, De Lima insisted on Tuesday that the time had come for the Government to take a definitive stand by reimplementing the death penalty to stymie the rate of homicides.

De Lima, who is also vice-chairman of the Congress of the People, claimed that Singapore, which once had a high murder rate, now experienced a mere four murders a year.

“Because the people understand that if you play the fool, that’s it. But in Trinidad, a fella will kill somebody and he will just walk away because he figures that ... well, the last time they hang anybody here was about 50 years ago,” he said.

“They (criminals) are the ones in control and if they (Government) want to continue that way, let them go ahead and let the status quo prevail. On the other hand, we have got to try something in the interest of the law-abiding people of this country and I think, in the meantime, the only thing to do is to get firm by reintroducing the death penalty.”

De Lima said he disagreed with one of his colleagues in the legal fraternity who, in a television interview last week, said the death penalty will not remedy the crime situation.

“I don’t believe that. I am of the view that if you return the death penalty to this country it will help. And not even the death penalty alone, I will also bring back corporal punishment,” he said.

“When I look at all the little children growing up, I feel so sad for them because the way we going now they are going to come into a world where the criminals are in control. As I see it, that seems to be the situation now.”

The outspoken senior counsel also took issue with the PNM’s argument that the famous Pratt and Morgan judgment, as handed down by the Privy Council, should have been adopted by the Government in its argument to bring back capital punishment.

“You see all of that, I would have done away with the Privy Council because we have gotten to a stage now where the Privy Council really does not want us. They have made it very clear that they are more interested in their European interests. So, in other words, we are a burden to them. So before they kick us out, I would have kicked them out,” he said.

But De Lima also expressed some concern about the factors in society which may lead persons to commit murder.

“Is it about poor choices or an overall breakdown in discipline which we seem to have lost along the way?” he asked.

In presenting the issue of societal factors influencing the behavioural patterns of would-be killers, De Lima supported an argument articulated by Minister of Gender, Youth and Child Development, Verna St Rose-Greaves.

Strongly opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty, St Rose-Greaves, a social worker by profession, has long argued that the measure had no place in a civilised society and that she had done a lot of work and research on the topic.

Instead, she has insisted that a robust attempt be made to address issues to promote a respect for human life and restorative justice.

These include:

* The issue of sexuality;

* The teaching of human rights awareness;

* The setting up of drug interdiction centres;

* The establishment of intervention centres for families; and,

* The development of safe and proper child care measures.

When the issue of bringing back the death penalty arose within the People’s Partnership two years ago, St Rose-Greaves, who was Special Adviser on Children’s Affairs to the Prime Minister at that time, said if she could not influence change she would have walked away from the Government.

“I will have no choice but to step out,” she had said in radio interview in July 2010.

Now, given her position as a Cabinet minister, St Rose-Greaves has again been placed in a precarious position.

Asked about her position on the controversial issue during Thursday’s post-Cabinet news conference, St Rose-Greaves maintained her original stance, saying she will adopt a wait-and-see approach until the legislation came to the Senate.

“My position on the death penalty has not changed. Hence the reason why I am working so hard to help children and young people so that they do not get into a life where we feel that we need to hang them,” she said.

Pressed on whether she would support the legislation when it came to the Senate, she said, “Well, I can’t say that. Let’s see what happens.”

Trade Minister, Stephen Cadiz, who has also been opposed to the death penalty, again voiced his disapproval on Thursday, but said he will support the legislation in the interest of collective Cabinet responsibility.

“It’s not perfect for me by any means. However, I do understand that I am part of the Government and I have a responsibility, collective responsibility, when dealing with any issue,” he added.

Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal was categorical in her stance in the issue.

“The death penalty is the law. It is still on the books,” she said on Wednesday

“We went to the Privy Council in 2004 and it reiterated that it was still part of the law and it was mandatory. What we are really talking about is the implementation of it. We have a law that has proven to be the law.”

Speaking from a personal standpoint, Seetahal said until the Parliament decides to abolish the death penalty, it remained the law.

“And, therefore, as the law, it should be carried out in accordance with the law. In other words, once people’s appeals have expired and any other appeal they may have, it ought to be carried out, otherwise there will be non-compliance with the rule of law,” she said.

“The rule of law means just that — that the law should be implemented. But if there is no intention to carry it out, well, then change the law.”

— See pages 22A - 24A

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