Our Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley, has gone where no other prime minister or leader of the opposition in this country has gone before. Speaking at the post-Cabinet briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister last week, the Prime Minister declared himself to be a “firm believer” in the death penalty. He went on to say that his belief in capital punishment was not based on the practice as a deterrent to crime but rather as a punishment fitting the crime. We need to appreciate that in declaring himself firmly in favour of capital punishment Dr Rowley was treading on virgin ground.
Until that declaration of belief by Dr Rowley the preferred response by all our politicians to the question of their position on the death penalty was the mealy-mouthed and deliberately ambiguous response that the law of the country provided for the death penalty and they were duty bound to uphold the law.
But Dr Rowley’s declaration of belief in the death penalty also marks a dramatic shift in his position as to the significance of the death penalty as an instrument in the fight against crime. Back in 2013, when he addressed a press conference he had called as leader of the opposition, Dr Rowley had declared that talk about the death penalty as the answer to the country’s crime problem was nothing more than “political gimmickry”.
It is also supremely ironic that Dr Rowley would have publicly admitted that he had communicated with former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj on the issue and that he had asked Mr Maharaj to assist the Government in creating the necessary pathway for executions to be carried out.
The irony lies first in the fact that Dr Rowley, as the leader of the opposition, had the PNM vote against, (and thus defeat the bill which required a three-fifths majority), the Constitution Amendment (Capital Offences) Bill, better known as the Hanging Bill, which had been introduced by the People’s Partnership government in an effort to circumvent the restrictions placed on the implementation of the death penalty by the Privy Council in its Pratt and Morgan decision.
But the irony does not end there. For as far back as 1999 the same Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj who was then attorney general introduced legislation into Parliament seeking a constitutional amendment to obviate the restrictions to the death penalty imposed by the Pratt and Morgan decision. On that occasion too, the PNM opposition of which Dr Rowley was a member, voted unanimously against the bill.
There are a few points which have to be made clear if we are to get a proper appreciation of the radical metamorphosis which is signalled by Dr Rowley’s declaration of belief. First, the Pratt and Morgan decision was delivered by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as far back as 1993. That original decision and the restrictions it placed on implementation of the death penalty has subsequently been reinforced by a number of other decisions.
But the Privy Council has also made it very clear that its various decisions, which constitute restrictions on the implementation of the death penalty, can be reversed but that the means to do so is by amendment of the Constitution. In this context it should be noted that the parliaments in both Barbados and Jamaica have approved constitutional amendments expressly designed to void the Privy Council decisions.
It is only in Trinidad and Tobago that no such constitutional amendments have been made. Both the Maharaj bill of 1999 and the Ramlogan bill of 2011 were designed to make just such constitutional changes. In both instances the PNM refused to support the bills.
So we do have to question the provenance of this radical change of heart on the part of Dr Rowley. It may well have been occasioned by a sense of desperation over the Government’s manifest failure to demonstrate any degree of success in the fight against crime, particularly in light of the steady upward trend in the number of murders taking place on a daily basis as well as the fact the police themselves seem to have become targets now.
Whatever the motivation for the new found “firmness” of Dr Rowley’s belief in capital punishment, as with all protestations of faith it must be remembered that actions always speak louder than words. So we wait to see what the real outcome of Dr Rowley’s words might be in terms of legislative action and a closer relationship with the Opposition on this issue.
Whatever the outcome let us also remember that, as Dr Rowley himself repeated on many occasions when he was the leader of the opposition, the death penalty is at the end of the process. Before we even get there we need to see significant improvements in the detection rates and the conviction rates. Without these and other such improvements to hang or not to hang remains nothing but a public policy red herring.