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EDITORIAL: Law to protect good and bad


BEA DOTTIN, [email protected]

EDITORIAL: Law to protect good and bad

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Yet again the matter of enforcing capital punishment is in the news, and this time it is our sister nation Trinidad and Tobago that has failed in the attempt to change its laws so it could resume hanging.
It is a matter of concern to citizens in these parts that their parliaments cannot get changed appropriate legislation that would allow resumption of the death penalty in the face of serious increase in the number of murder cases brought before the courts.
The debate has been ongoing for sometime now, and the human rights lawyers in the region have been quick to get to court to argue for their clients, even after conviction, to show why they should not be executed, notwithstanding “duly processed” verdicts against them.
It is not surprising sometimes to hear exasperated citizens denouncing “the system” because “people are doing foolishness nowadays”. They are, of course, referring to murderous breaches of the law which take away the victim’s right to life, while the state remains, it would seem, powerless to exact the ultimate penalty on the law-breaker.
The uninitiated might be forgiven for exclaiming that something is wrong.
The issue resides in the law and the interpretation of aspects of our regional constitutions, and it is just as well that these matters are debated in the public domain without undue emotion.
Our regional Independence constitutions, similar in this respect, have concretized in the law certain fundamental rights designed to protect all – the lawful and the unlawful – and the right to due process of the law, as well as the right to life, are two of the several rights so guaranteed.
These rights cannot be changed by simple majority and ruling parties often require some opposition votes to change these laws.
These two are particularly useful to lawyers seeking to protect their clients from the hangman’s noose because, to put it simply, one should not lose his right to life if the law and its due process in relation to him have been infringed, for we live under the rule of law.
The right not to be subjected to cruel and inhumane punishment has similarly proved useful, for it has been held that to keep a condemned prisoner on death row for lengthy periods is “cruel and inhuman punishment”, which also infringes his rights.
To say that the state’s money should be spent on hiring more prosecutors, judges and other court personnel to speed up the process may seem a simple answer, but in countries with scarce resources and social ills, it is not that easy.
We understand and respect the public concern. From time to time the legislature has sought to respond to that concern and the problem of apparent disregard for life by some criminals, by trying to reverse the impact of decisions of the Privy Council, from which came most of the rulings affecting the carrying out of the death penalty.
Suffice it to say that the state must perforce respect the law, however inconvenient the rulings of the courts might be. It simply would not be right if a prisoner was executed before all his appeals were exhausted, or when an application on his behalf was pending before an appeal court, but this happened not so long ago in this region.
The rule of law guarantees freedom in our democracy. It protects us all, for to ignore a prisoner’s right to life, and to deny him his due process of the law, is a potent precedent for unlawful deprivation of another man’s property, or the most virulent discrimination against others on the grounds of, say, sex or race.
Strict adherence to the law in relation to hanging is more than an issue of the death penalty. It is an issue of the rule of law, and changing the law on hanging requires the votes of the ruling and opposition parties, and sometimes politics and law do not mix well.

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