Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Jamaica brings back the hangman (1)
Last week Jamaica voted to end its 20-year moratorium on capital punishment. Here's my piece from The Daily Express on why the Caribbean island is ignoring the opinions of the EU and human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, to bring back hanging. It's quite a long article so I'll be posting it in two halves- part two to follow shortly.
With its idyllic scenery, golden sandy beaches and lush vegetation, Jamaica is unquestionably one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
But sadly, it is also one of the most violent. Last year there 1,400 murders on the Caribbean island, a staggering total for a country of just 2.8 million people. This year the number of killings has already passed 1,240. Jamaica has over 60 homicides a year for every 100,000 citizens, that's almost thirty times higher than Britain.
Faced with rising public concern, the Jamaican Parliament this week voted by 34 votes to 15 to end the 20-year moratorium on the death penalty. The measure was backed by Jamaica’s governing Labour party, which despite its name, is the country’s main conservative party, with Prime Minister Bruce Golding promising to resume executions.
“I wasn't for the death penalty, but since the Ananda Dean incident, I am for it," said Labour MP Karl Samuda in the debate during this week’s vote. He was referring to the abduction and murder of an 11 year schoolgirl in September- a crime which shocked a nation which thought it was beyond being shocked. Little Ananda had last been seeing getting on a bus to go to school- almost two weeks later her naked and headless body was found buried by the roadside in a wooden box.
Her murder was only one in a series of horrific crimes involving children to have taken place in Jamaica this year.
In September the dismembered body of 11-year-old Aakim Scott- who had gone missing from his home, was found in a rubbish bag. In May, gunmen shot two teen sisters dead in their Kingston home, on the eve of their father’s birthday. While earlier this month, 13 year-old Christopher Suckra, was found naked with his head bashed in after not returning home from school.
Violent crime has so blighted Jamaica that even long-standing opponents of capital punishment in Jamaica, such as its leading clergymen, have called for its reintroduction.
"There is need for some tough decisions and people will grumble and cry. But we'll have to make (those) decisions if we're going to have change in our land," said Bishop Ronald Blair, only a few days after a man attempted to behead a pastor with a machete, while he was preaching in the pulpit.
But Jamaica’s decision to bring back the ultimate deterrent looks set to put it on a collision course with western human rights groups- and the European Union, which may impose sanctions. Last month, Benita Ferroro-Waldner, the EU’s Commissioner for External Affairs, condemned the death penalty saying it “serves to aggravate a culture of violence and retribution”. She stressed that the EU- which prohibits the use of the death penalty in member states- was “determined to work towards the universal abolition of the death penalty through all available diplomatic channels”. The EU has openly sided with the anti-death penalty campaigners in Jamaica, giving a grant of 320,000 euros to a Jamaican human rights group opposed to the reinstatement of capital punishment.
Britain too, is not likely to be pleased with the decision taken by its former colony and current Commonwealth member. There are likely to be appeals by lawyers representing prisoners currently on ‘death row’ to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, a body which though it sits in England and consists of British judges is still Jamaica’s highest court. The 1993 ‘Pratt & Morgan’ ruling by the Committee mandated that the sentences of inmates on death row for more than five years be commuted to life imprisonment.
Meanwhile Amnesty International, the human rights group which campaigns for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment, has called for Jamaica to reject the death penalty and claims that “a return to hanging will not solve the public security crisis”.
None of these arguments are however, likely to hold much sway with the Jamaican public who, if opinion polls are to be believed, strongly support the government’s move to resume capital punishment. In fact, there is resentment in the country that outsiders are seeking to influence Jamaica’s right to decide its own laws.
Jamaica’s problem with violent crime is a comparatively recent phenomenon. For most of the 20th century, the country was renowned for being a safe, law-abiding place- as late as 1965 the island’s homicide rate was only 3.7 per 100,000 people, nearly twenty times lower than today. Wealthy Britons such as the playwright Noel Coward and James Bond creator Ian Fleming, made the tranquil tropical island their home.
The rapid rise in violent crime in recent years has been described by Jamaican writer Kevin Chang as “maybe the greatest explosion of civil violence any nation without significant ethnic, tribal, linguistic, ideological or religious differences has ever experienced“.
In the 1970s the island began to be plagued with political violence- carried out by gangs linked to the countries two main parties. The violence reached a peak in the run up to the 1980 general election, in which around 800 people were killed.
Over the last decade, the level of non-political violent crime has soared. The numbers are truly mind-boggling. 1,100 people were murdered on the island in 2001- a 30% increase on the previous year and the highest rise ever in one year.
In 2004 the number of murders rose to 1,471, a year later it was up again to a new peak of almost 1,700.