Grenadian commutations revive debate over death penalty in Caribbean

September 22, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

A new debate over the death penalty is sweeping the English-speaking Caribbean, fueled by Grenada's controversial commutation of death sentences for 14 people convicted in the 1983 slaying of the island's prime minister, Maurice Bishop.

From Guyana in South America across the Caribbean Sea to Belize in Central America, there are nearly 450 prisoners on death row in the 12 countries that were once British possessions. The countries have a total population of less than 5 million.

Florida, with a population of 13 million, has 318 people on death row.

Jamaica alone, with 2.2 million people, has 250 on death row, one of the highest per capita figures in the world.

Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of slightly more than 1 million, has more than 100 death row prisoners. That figure could double if 114 Muslim extremists involved in an aborted 1990 coup are convicted of treason and other charges.

In each of the 12 countries, execution is carried out by hanging. There have been two hangings so far in 1991, one in Antigua and one in St. Vincent.

The death penalty has been a simmering regional issue for years, bubbling to the surface intermittently.

With the Grenada government's decision last month to commute to life in prison the death sentences of the 14 people convicted of the 1983 murders of Mr. Bishop and several colleagues -- an action that resulted in a U.S.-led invasion -- the debate has escalated.

International and regional human rights and local church groups have been at the forefront of efforts to abolish the death penalty -- and get the Grenada sentences commuted. Aligned against them are large segments of public opinion and numerous government officials, particularly those involved in law enforcement.

"There is a lot of controversy and confusion in the region over the death penalty," said Owen Baptiste, editor-in-chief of the Trinidad Express newspaper in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. "Crime is high in Jamaica, high in Trinidad, escalating in Barbados. . . . People are nervous about the abolition of the death penalty."

Mr. Baptiste said his paper had not taken an editorial position on the issue but leaned toward the conservative side. But, he said, many of the paper's columnists had come out against the death penalty.

Human rights groups ranging from Amnesty International to Caribbean Rights, a regional umbrella group for eight national human rights organizations, hailed the Grenada government's decision -- which commuted the death penalty for nearly a dozen other prisoners on death row in addition to the 14.

"Caribbean Rights feels that this may be the moment in our social history when all governments of the Caribbean Community should give serious and urgent consideration to commuting all death sentences to life imprisonment and to abolishing the death penalty," Victor Cuffy, executive secretary of Caribbean Rights, cabled Grenada Prime Minister Nicholas Braithwaite after the decision was announced.

But it was not a popular decision in Grenada, an island of 100,000 where there is little sympathy for the 14 prisoners.

"I would estimate that 80 percent of Grenadians are incensed with the government decision," Grenada journalist Alister Hughes said after a spot check of opinion around the island for BBC radio.

In Dominica, Prime Minister Eugenia Charles, a key supporter of the 1983 Grenada invasion, said she would have done things differently in Mr. Braithwaite's position, presumably meaning that she would have ordered the executions carried out.

In Trinidad, the Chamber of Commerce, in its weekly column in the Express newspaper, accused the Grenada government of "weakness" and said the decision "has sent the wrong message to the criminal elements of the Caribbean."

On Aug. 16, two days after the Grenada decision was announced, St. Vincent carried out its first hanging since 1987.

There has been speculation in the Caribbean press that in commuting the death sentences, the Grenada government caved in to international human rights pressure or pressure by potential aid donors, fearful of the negative image the mass hanging of 14 people would project.

While the Grenada decision focused international attention on the regional controversy, the issue has been an ongoing source of debate in the Caribbean.

The British government provoked local outcries earlier this year when it abolished the death penalty in its dependent Caribbean territories -- the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla and Montserrat.

"The British ministers have evidently not taken into consideration the far-reaching effects [of the decision] on law and order in the territory," complained Chief Minister Lavity Stoutt of the British Virgin Islands, reflecting an opinion echoed in other territories.

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