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House of Commons

Wednesday 23 June 1999

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Capital Punishment (Caribbean)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

9.33 am

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Thank you for giving me an opportunity to raise this issue in the House today, Madam Speaker, during a period of particular crisis caused by the hangings that have taken place in Trinidad and Tobago and the possibility of a large number of hangings in other parts of the Caribbean.

I have always been strongly opposed to capital punishment, but this is not just about capital punishment and the hanging of people who may or may not be guilty because the process of justice is not what it ought to be in some Caribbean countries. It is about human rights. I am not just a British Member of Parliament with not much else to do poking his nose into the affairs of other sovereign countries. Many people and organisations have expressed deep concern and sought to intervene in the attempts to carry out--and now, sadly, the carrying out of--executions in the Caribbean. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has condemned Jamaica. One of Her Majesty's inspectors of prisons went there and reported that the prison conditions were the worst that he had ever seen. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and I have visited Ministers and the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, who expressed his concern and told us of how he had sought to intervene. These are matters of universal concern to all who are troubled by the human rights records of several countries.

At their Edinburgh meeting in October 1997, the Commonwealth Heads of Government


I am sorry to say that a considerable number of those who signed that communique did so hypocritically, because they are not maintaining such standards in their country. The situation in Jamaica and Trinidad is particularly troubling. The hypocrisy involved in the way in which the matters are dealt with is almost as troubling. For example, Caribbean Justice, which is working hard on the issues, told me that because approximately 30 per cent. of the population of Trinidad and Tobago is Catholic and the Catholic Church there is opposed to the death penalty, the executions earlier this month were timed to avoid the feast of Corpus Christi. I do not know why the Government bothered.

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I shall use one case as an example of the hypocrisy and violation of human rights in Caribbean countries. Anthony Briggs was due to be hanged yesterday in Trinidad. I have made inquiries about what has happened in that case. On Sunday 20 June an Associated Press report said:


to avoid execution


    "was 'plainly hopeless, bound to fail.'"

The report went on:


    "On Friday, his lawyers appealed, saying he still had a petition pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission."

I shall return to that body later. The report continued:


    "Judge Nolan Bereaux said at midnight Friday there was no evidence that the appeal was ever made. 'I thus rule the constitutional motion is plainly hopeless, bound to fail.' he ruled. 'It is an abuse of process and it is frivolous and vexatious, and I refuse the application for a stay.' The appeals court, headed by Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide, agreed several hours later"

that Mr. Briggs should hang.

Mr. Briggs is one of between 70 and 100 people on death row in Trinidad, which has a population of just over 1 million. It is as though there were 5,000 people on death row in this country.

The next day, an agency report said:


The report continued:


    "Lawyers representing Briggs said an order imposed on the Trinidad and Tobago government last year by the Inter-American Human Rights Court was never lifted.


    The order was imposed following moves by the government to hang Briggs who had a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission ruled on the petition in March and recommended to the government that Briggs be paid compensation or be considered for either an early release or commutation of his death sentence.


    The Commission said that Briggs had remained in jail too long before he went on trial for the 1992 murder of Shammi Ramkissoon."

The courts in Trinidad were perfectly ready to authorise the execution of Mr. Briggs. Indeed, if they had had their way, they would have executed him even though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said that he should be paid compensation and released. That is what I am dealing with in today's debate; it is not simply some kind of bleeding-heart opposition to capital punishment, although I admit that I am strongly opposed to it.

There are other examples. The last hanging in Trinidad was in 1994 when a man called Dan Ashby was hanged while the Privy Council was considering his case.

I have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South on issues relating to capital punishment in the Caribbean for many years. A number of men on death row in Jamaica took to writing to me. Some of them have been on death row for nearly 20 years. They started there as young men and have reached middle age while waiting on death row.

Until the Pratt and Morgan ruling by the Privy Council, there were some 270 people on death row in Jamaica. That is another example of the violation of human rights.

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The Pratt and Morgan ruling said that keeping men on death row for more than five years was cruel and inhuman treatment. When I went to Jamaica, I met the Governor General, who said that men on death row should be executed or released.

After the Pratt and Morgan ruling, the number of people on death row in Jamaica was gradually reduced, though not as speedily as it should have been in accordance with the Privy Council ruling.

I went to Jamaica and visited all the prisons in Kingston where I met the men who had been writing to me. I was appalled, not only by the abominable conditions, especially on death row, but by the way in which those in charge of the prison conducted themselves. When I was talking to two of the men who had been writing to me, the man who was in charge of prisons and who had insisted on accompanying me to all my meetings was abusive to them in my presence. That led me to wonder how they were treated when not in the presence of a visiting British Member of Parliament, given their treatment when I was actually there.

The conditions on death row in particular were unspeakable. Prisoners have no furniture and no eating implements. They have a theoretical short exercise period which to a considerable degree is not observed, so they rarely see daylight because there is no lighting in their tiny cells. As a result, they have eye problems, but they are denied access to a doctor. Their only access to any hygiene is a stand pipe outside the death row block, which they have to use for washing and cleaning food. The conditions in other prisons, where people are not being held ready for eventual execution, though not quite as bad, are still dreadful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, who has also had correspondence with people on death row, told me what I had already guessed--that those on death row had been made to clean the place up before I arrived. If that was what it was like when it was cleaned up, I shudder to think what it was like when there were no visitors.

Like others, I was rather complacent in believing that hangings would not be resumed in the Caribbean. I thought that the saga would continue and that many would be held in intolerable conditions but not executed. Trinidad has shown that that complacency was totally unjustified and we now hear reports that Jamaica, where there are still some 50 men on death row, is preparing to conduct hangings.

It was reported in The Independent yesterday, that


there were nine executions there--


    "had set an important precedent."

The zeal for hanging has been stimulated by what has taken place in Trinidad.

Trinidad and Jamaica are not the only countries involved. It is difficult to find the exact figures, but it appears that there are 300 people on death row in Caribbean countries. Helping them presents great problems because there is very little opportunity for pro bono work by lawyers in those countries. There are some very brave lawyers, one of whom I met when I was in Jamaica.

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The Commonwealth Caribbean death penalty project, which is one of a few projects that provide help for men on death row, has run out of funds. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, whose work on this matter I very much respect, asking whether overseas development funds could be provided. She wrote back saying that it was not within the scope of her Department. I very much hope that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), whose answers to parliamentary questions show his concern, will be able to say that at least some finance will be made available for that project.

There are several eminent firms of solicitors in London who do pro bono work for death row prisoners in the Caribbean. I recently gave an affidavit to one who was seeking to assist a death row prisoner. I repeat what I said at the beginning of my speech: when firms like Simons Muirhead and Burton and Clifford Chance do pro bono work, it demonstrates that it is a matter not simply of nosey parker Members of Parliament interfering, but of important areas of concern to everyone who cares about the rule of law.

I received a letter from Simons Muirhead and Burton describing the problems of those on death row or in Jamaican prisons relating to access to legal advice. It said:


I wish to pay tribute to the London firms and solicitors who are doing this work, which is difficult.

Any of us with constituents in jail will be well aware that there are large numbers of people in jail who claim their innocence--whether accurately or not. However, owing to the rough and ready systems of justice in these countries, not only are people who will have undoubtedly committed murder liable to be hanged after suffering bad conditions in prison, but it is quite likely that innocent people are suffering in the same way. After all, if we in this country can keep people in prison for 14 years who were wrongly found guilty of murder--I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South at this point--I do not rule out that the same is likely to have happened in these countries.

All over the Caribbean, the reintroduction of hanging--or the danger of it--is prevalent. In Barbados, there is an intention to reintroduce hanging. Last year, St. Kitts had its first hanging since 1981. In the Bahamas, Trevor Fisher and Richard Woods were hanged on 15 October 1998, notwithstanding the fact that each had petitions pending to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that their rights, enshrined under the American declaration on the rights and duties of man, had been violated. These were the first executions in the Bahamas for three years, and were carried out despite a demarche from the EU--which has been active on these matters--on both cases, and a request from the IACHR that the Government preserve their lives, pending its decision on the petitions submitted by the two men on

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7 June 1996 and 28 August 1996 respectively. A recognised legal process was involved, but the hangings took place all the same.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South has been particularly concerned about the situation in Belize, and has been active on that matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, in a recent letter to me, said that she was working with Penal Reform International in Jamaica and Belize. That is another country causing deep concern.

Those countries are so keen to carry out hangings that they are revoking international agreements to do so. They are withdrawing from international bodies which provide recourse to the possibility of executions being prevented or postponed.


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