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November 13 2008


Caribbean islands push for keeping death penalty, against spread criminality

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Spurning Europe, Caribbean pushes death penalty


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Jamaican pastor Terrence Brown wants killers put to death - he's even offered to trade his collar for a hangman's hood to confront a crime wave that has been terrorizing his parishioners.

"If the government doesn't carry out their responsibility, you're going to have jungle justice, and that is what is growing rapidly in Jamaica and across the Caribbean," said Brown, a preacher with the evangelical Holiness Christian Church in Jamaica's Spanish Town.

Soaring crime has islanders demanding more executions, exhorting politicians to work around restrictions imposed by Europe and overwhelming international opposition that have all but ended capital punishment in the Caribbean.

In Jamaica, the beheading of a young girl and the discovery of an 11-year-old boy's dismembered body in a trash bag have increased pressure on parliament, where debate began Tuesday on whether to resume executions after 20 years.

Advocates include Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who promised quicker executions before winning office last year. He declined to say Tuesday how he would vote.

"I believe I must be careful not to influence people," Golding said, as he urged legislators to follow their conscience. "In whatever directions those views point, we should proceed to act accordingly. ... It's important for us to resolve this issue."

Opponents say governments should focus on reducing poverty and corruption instead.

"Instead of trying to solve the crime problem, we wave the study of the death penalty as a flag but there won't be any kind of change," said Jamaica's Amnesty International coordinator, Maria Carla Gullotta.

Polls consistently show strong support for the death penalty in the Caribbean, but nobody has been executed in the region outside Cuba since the Bahamas hanged a convicted killer in 2000.

Capital punishment is on the books across the English-speaking Caribbean, and governments are stiffening penalties and limiting appeals. At least 90 prisoners are on death row in the region, including four men who were ordered to hang in St. Kitts and Nevis in August before a court granted a reprieve.

A primary obstacle is the London-based Privy Council, the highest court of review for many former British colonies. It ruled that sentences must be commuted to life in prison if the condemned are not executed within five years - a window some consider unreasonable because appeals are so slow.

Rising crime also plagues the Caribbean's French and British territories, but capital punishment is a political nonstarter for these islands because laws would need rewriting in the abolitionist strongholds of London and Paris. The Netherlands and its Caribbean territories also outlawed capital punishment.

Hit hardest is Jamaica, where 3 million people suffered more than 1,240 murders this year. But smaller resort islands are affected too. After two British honeymooners were shot dead in July in Antigua, the government proposed the gallows for crimes involving weapons, even if the victim is not killed.

Brown is one of several prominent Jamaican churchmen pressing for executions. He said the violence is destroying families, and suggested himself a hangman to prove there would be no shortage of volunteers. The idea stirred a national debate, and despite some criticism, many have echoed his offer. "I know many persons who are willing to do it," he said.

Capital punishment has been abolished for decades in the Spanish-speaking, predominantly Catholic Dominican Republic. Religious and cultural opposition to the death penalty also holds in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where jurors often reject federal prosecutors' requests for death.

But islanders see it as a solution in Trinidad and Tobago, where the attorney general asked legislators to amend the constitution to keep the Privy Council from interfering after British judges ordered 52 prisoners off death row in August.

"Apart from all the smoke screen that has been thrown up about whether the death penalty will reduce crime, the foremost principle is the ability of the state to carry out its laws," said Elson Crick, a spokesman for the prime minister of St. Vincent, which is preparing to revise its constitution. In response to citizen demands, Crick said it will likely make executions easier.

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