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Trinidad Returns to the Gallows

The attorney general, who used to vigorously defend death row inmates, says executions will begin this month. The Caribbean's escalating drug trade has hardened public support for capital punishment.

June 17, 1998|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — 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.

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