Trinidad Returns to the Gallows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For decades, Ramesh Maharaj carefully crafted his image as the father of human rights in this remote corner of the Caribbean.

A prominent defense attorney, he spent a week in prison in the course of defending a client's rights in 1975. He created Trinidad and Tobago's first human rights commission more than a decade ago. And he was known as a leading death-house lawyer who deftly exploited every legal loophole and avenue for appeal to keep convicted killers from the hangman's noose.

But now, Maharaj is on the other side of the gallows. As Trinidad's attorney general, he vowed last week that by the end of June his government will start putting killers to death once again--after two decades interrupted only once by an execution.

Never mind that Maharaj's own brother is on death row in Florida.

The onetime rights champion is trying to yank the country from international human rights treaties and pledging to hang as many as 85 convicted murderers here in a push for capital punishment that is sweeping the Caribbean.

For Maharaj, who is as much politician as prison protagonist, the dramatic about-face appears to be less a personal conversion than sheer pragmatism: The issue has spawned only limited moral debate and galvanized public opinion across socioeconomic lines.

In the shifting sands of justice in the region, this oil- and gas-rich land just off the Venezuelan coast serves as a graphic example of the groundswell for eye-for-an-eye justice in the United States' backyard. It is among four of the region's most developed nations that are trying to carry out death penalties that largely have been stymied by lengthy appeals, human rights concerns and court rulings in far-off London--a vestige of their colonial past.

The push for death is driven by death itself: a hardening of popular opinion, widespread public insecurity and cries for revenge. It comes at a time when the escalating cocaine trade, from South America through these islands and on to the United States and Europe, is poisoning the region with corpses, soaring crime, drug abuse and the embittered relatives of victims.

In their zeal to reopen the gallows, these nations--Barbados, the Bahamas and Jamaica are the other three--are rejecting appeals from their Commonwealth partner and former colonial ruler, Britain, which has banned the death penalty at home and in the half a dozen colonies it still maintains in the Caribbean, and from human rights groups in the Americas that oppose capital punishment.

The countries are looking to change their criminal justice systems in the process, targeting one of their last colonial-era institutions. When these nations won independence from Britain decades ago, they agreed to maintain as their court of last appeal Britain's Privy Council, which was seen as far removed from the pressures and influence of politics and from corruption in their local judiciaries.

Legal Loopholes on Death Row

But in recent years, the Privy Council has been influenced by Britain's opposition to the death penalty. The council's jurists have overturned many death sentences in the Caribbean and put severe restrictions on others. One precedent-setting decision limited to two years the period an inmate can remain on death row, opening a legal loophole that has allowed dozens of death sentences to be commuted. The action has also inflamed the popular call for justice throughout the region.

So the islands are trying to create their own Caribbean Supreme Court to replace the council with justices recruited from the region.

But the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is not going to wait for a new supreme court.

Implementing the death penalty here is part of an urgent and sweeping crackdown on crime and cocaine trafficking by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday's government--one of the region's toughest on crime and one of Washington's closest allies in the war on drugs, which have flooded the region in recent years as Colombian cocaine traffickers shift their smuggling routes from Mexico to the Caribbean.

Trinidad's crackdown includes millions of dollars in U.S. logistical support, training and other counter-narcotics aid. And its fierce anti-crime and counter-narcotics policies have won high praise from the Clinton administration. But the policies have also provoked concern from human rights activists and attorneys throughout the Americas, who have singled out for criticism Atty. Gen. Maharaj and his back flip in the death penalty debate.

In an effort to limit the appeals process, Maharaj has already pulled Trinidad from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights--one of two international appeals bodies in death cases. In preparation for its first hangings, the government has signaled its plan to withdraw from the other: the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Both moves are aimed at limiting the appeals that often extend beyond the Privy Council's two-year maximum waiting period for death row inmates.

"Our position is really very simple," Maharaj said in a recent interview. "We believe the death penalty is not a human rights issue. . . . The Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago authorizes life to be taken after the due process of law."

Maharaj insisted that the fate of his elder brother is not an issue. Krishna Maharaj, who still maintains his innocence, is on death row in Florida's Starke Prison after being convicted of a drug-related double murder in a downtown Miami hotel.

The attorney general also rejected charges of hypocrisy, along with concerns that the death penalty is just one step toward draconian new policies by his law-and-order government.

Maharaj distinguished between his personal opinions and his duties as a Cabinet official, which oblige him to uphold the Trinidadian Constitution, which simply states: "Every person convicted of murder shall suffer death."

'I Believe in the Rights of Victims'

"I am committed to human rights," he said, "but I also believe the attorney general has the responsibility to protect the interest of each individual citizen, and I believe in the rights of victims."

Of his long-standing opposition to the death penalty, Maharaj added: "I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said, 'Any man who cannot change his views is a fool.' . . . But I don't think it would be right for me to give my personal view on the death penalty at this point."

Most Trinidadians by far seem to approve of Maharaj's stand. A three-year survey by the Psychological Research Center at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies showed that 96% of respondents supported the death penalty in 1994 and 93% in 1996.

At a more informal "university" in Woodford Square, a downtown park across from Trinidad's Hall of Justice, where the death warrants are issued, a steady stream of Trinidadians explained why.

Anchored by a blackboard proclaiming "University of Woodford Square," this section of the park is modeled after Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park--a gathering place for people and opinions from all walks of life.

"I'm not a 100% supporter of it, but I feel that if a man breaks another man's neck, I have no problem if they break his neck too," said Charles Gray, a welding contractor who was in the square one recent afternoon. "What bothers me is the government is using it as a political tool to win support."

A construction worker who asked not to be named was less equivocal: "I say hang them high. I'm a man who moves in bandit areas. At 2 a.m., when someone has a gun to my head, who am I going to appeal to for mercy?

"It's not a question of deterrence. If you kill that man who has killed a man, he'll never kill again. And if that man has killed without mercy, he also should be killed without mercy."

Frank Solomon is among a small group of prominent defense attorneys here and on the other islands who sharply disagree.

"I'm sure the majority supports death. There is a lot of drug-related crime, and people feel insecure," Solomon said. "The popular psychology is that the use of the death penalty will bring down crime, but it isn't so. All it does is make the population more accustomed to violence and murder."

Solomon attributed the clamor for capital punishment directly to the relative prosperity of Trinidad and the three other Caribbean nations now pushing for the penalty.

"Prosperity and crime do not coexist," he said. "Those who are prosperous wish their property to be secure, so it is an issue of security. But there is another phenomenon that is difficult to explain."

Most of Trinidad's death row inmates are from the nation's lower classes. Yet, unlike in the United States, that is not an issue here, Solomon said. "In Trinidad, even the lower classes support the death penalty. My only explanation is that people who live with violence accept it far more comfortably."

Solomon has represented many death row inmates in the appeals process that has stymied the death penalty. His clients have included Dole Chadee, who has been demonized in the Trinidadian press as a ruthless and murdering drug lord. Chadee was convicted of ordering the massacre of an entire family. Around the time of those deaths, two homemakers were slain in a posh neighborhood of Port of Spain in an unrelated case. Together, those crimes sparked the populist call for hangings to resume.

In the sole hanging in Trinidad during the past two decades, convicted murderer Glen Ashby was put to death in 1995, shortly before the elections that brought Panday's government to power; Solomon and other defense attorneys assert that Ashby's execution was a political hanging in which the previous government circumvented the appeals process to win popular support.

"There hasn't been a legal hanging here since 1977," Solomon charged. "The Glen Ashby hanging wasn't an execution. It was a murder, and it created such a fuss that even the most bloodthirsty members of our society backed off."

Many here believed that Ashby was innocent, and his election year hanging shaved several percentage points off popular support for capital punishment.

But the main obstacle to the death penalty in the region for most of this decade has been a judgment by the Privy Council in a Jamaican case known as Pratt and Morgan. Handed down Nov. 2, 1993, the ruling involved two convicted murderers on death row in Jamaica, Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan, who were condemned to death Jan. 15, 1979, but were still on death row when they filed their appeal in March 1991.

Convicts Win Ruling From Privy Council

The convicts asserted that the long administrative delays in Jamaica's legal process had violated their human rights. And the Privy Council agreed.

"The statement of these bare facts is sufficient to bring home to the mind of any person of normal sensitivity and compassion the agony of mind that these men must have suffered as they have alternated between hope and despair in the 14 years that they have been in prison facing the gallows," the council observed in its ruling.

"To execute these men now after holding them in custody in agony of suspense for so many years would be inhuman punishment."

The council set a new deadline of five years between sentence and execution--later shortened to two years. The ruling applies to all the former Caribbean colonies using the Privy Council, and its net effect was to take scores of convicted killers off death row.

Overnight, the ruling forced Caribbean governments to commute many death sentences in cases that exceeded the new maximum waiting period. And prosecutors say it spawned a new delaying tactic by death row lawyers, who began using the human rights covenants to prolong the appeals process beyond the time limit; Trinidad alone had to commute 18 of its more than 100 pending death sentences last month because the appeals ran beyond the two-year limit.

That is why, Maharaj and other Trinidadian officials explained, their nation is withdrawing from or trying to renegotiate the human rights treaties: to speed up the appeal process, eliminate avenues of appeal and reopen the gallows.

"This is simply a matter of enforcing the laws we have in our books," Maharaj said.

It was only when the subject turned to his brother on death row in northern Florida that Maharaj's tone appeared to soften for just a moment.

"My brother, and my relationship with him, I do not wish to speak about publicly," he said. "I love him, and I will do anything in my power to help him.

"But," he added, "any attempt to mix his case with my official duties as attorney general would be wrong. . . . I have developed some pretty thick skin since I took this job."

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