Trinidad Considers Hanging as Murders Continue Unabated
(Port of Spain, Trinidad) The last time Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj was Attorney General he successfully hanged Trinidad and Tobago’s Most Wanted Drug Lord, Dole Chadee. It was 1999 and the murder toll for the entire year was 93.
Fast forward to 2017, Trinidad and Tobago’s murder count has reached 144, and it is only April. At this rate, the murder count will cross 500, a number not seen since 2008. Despite rapid economic growth in the 2000s, our murder rate has skyrocketed.
The last two decades have been the most violent in our nation’s history. A recent US State Department Crime and Safety report stated that most of our murders can be attributed to street gangs in Trinidad’s urban ghettos, fighting for turf. Drugs, guns and money, combined with poverty, broken homes and a failing justice system, together create a toxic mix.
Trinis have gotten used to seeing the body bags of young men, and the faces of their crying relatives. However, what has rocked the nation in recent months is a string of domestic violence cases, with young women as the victims. We have had 17 female victims for the year.
One of the most shocking was the murder of Woman Police Constable Nyasha Joseph. The young 22 year old had only been working in the police service for 4 months. Her body was found by fisherman working the waters off the Caroni Swamp. She was snagged by a fishnet and brought up to the surface. Although her autopsy came out inconclusive, due to the advanced stage of decomposition, there were significant injuries to her face and what appeared to be rope marks on her hands and neck.
Since then, our country’s Prime Minister, Dr Keith Rowley has stated that he is a “firm believer in capital punishment”. Rowley continued by stating that he views the death penalty not as a deterrent, but rather the punishment for the crime. This is significant, because our politicians usually skirt this question, and try not to be controversial, by stating that they will follow the law, which provides for the death penalty.
A change of heart perhaps, back in 2013 as Opposition Leader, Dr. Rowley was of the view that talk of the death penalty was nothing more than “political gimmickry”. In fact, the PNM voted against the Constitutional Amendment (Capital Offenses bill) in 2011. Now, as Prime Minister charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of his citizens, he has recruited former Attorney General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj. Attorney General under Basdeo Panday’s UNC in the 1990s and an advocate for hangings, Maharaj crafted up a policy to fast track the process of hangings. He officially submitted his report to the government late last month.
In Trinidad and Tobago, court cases are notoriously slow. By the time the case nears closure, some witnesses either forget or are murdered. The PNM has previously argued that the death penalty is towards the end of the process. They have stated that the justice system cannot hang anyone, if the police do not increase detection and conviction rates.
Attorney General Faris Al Rawi seems to have come up with another solution to speed up the process. He has recently introduced three pieces of legislation to parliament. Trials by judge alone have been introduced. The caveat is that an accused person can choose whether he would like to be tried by a judge or by a jury of his peers. Other less controversial laws are the implementation of plea bargaining and the elimination of preliminary enquiries. Combined, the Attorney General hopes that justice will be more readily handed down.
Back in 2011, when the previous UNC administration first introduced the idea of removing preliminary enquiries, part of a larger bill called the Administration of Justice Bill (Indictable Proceedings) 2011, that was passed and later repealed (a controversy for another time). It was found that there were as many as a 100,000 cases before the Magistrate Courts and 1000 cases before the High Court. It would have taken as much as 10 years to hear and determine all the murder cases currently being heard. No doubt the problem is still there; most likely even worse.
The Attorney General has his work cut out for him. Besides a speedier justice system, we need to have better qualified and trained police officers who are willing to tackle the gangs head on. Decriminalizing marijuana may allow for more resources to be focused on more serious crimes. According to Opposition Senator, Wayne Sturge, as much as 75% of magistrate court cases involves marijuana possession. But more importantly, more work needs to be done on prevention. Conflict resolution classes and parenting classes need to be instituted in schools and Trinis need to bring back that sense of comradery and community we once had. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Only together can we take back our country from the gangs.
Adam Raffoul holds a B.A. in International Relations from American University, Washington D.C. He is a young businessman; He volunteers for a local (T&T) think tank.