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December 20 2008

Caribbeans

St.Kitts hangs man as islands revive death penalty

 
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AP

St Kitts hangs man as islands revive death penalty

MIKE MELIA

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - One Caribbean nation wants to execute criminals who use weapons, even if they haven't killed anyone. Another is seeking the death penalty for murderous pirates. And a third, St. Kitts and Nevis, staged its first hanging in a decade Friday.

A crime wave is fueling a thirst for executions across the English-speaking Caribbean, prompting concern among human rights groups who say better policing on the islands would do more to deter criminals.

A bell tolled Friday from inside Her Majesty's Prison on the island of St. Kitts to signal the hanging of Charles Elroy Laplace, condemned in 2006 for killing his wife in a knife attack. A small crowd held a vigil outside the brick prison walls in the capital, Basseterre.

"We have to be certain that there is a deterrent among our people in taking another man's life," Prime Minister Denzil Douglas said as he announced the hanging to the National Assembly.

It was the first execution in the region outside Cuba since the Bahamas hanged a convicted killer in 2000.

But more than 90 prisoners are on death row in the region, including eight more in St. Kitts. Initiatives to ease convicts' path to the gallows have been welcomed by people around the Caribbean, where polls consistently show strong support for capital punishment.

Antigua and Barbuda has proposed expanding the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty to include any that involve weapons and lead to serious injury or death.

In Guyana, which is struggling to protect small fishing boats from piracy, the parliament has approved legislation to execute anybody who commits murder during a pirate attack.

Several countries are exploring changes to their constitutions to work around restrictions imposed by the London-based Privy Council, the highest court of review for many former British colonies. The court says sentences must be commuted to life in prison if the condemned are not executed within five years , a window some consider unreasonably short to resolve appeals.

An appeal that was filed in a St. Kitts court on Laplace's behalf was dismissed in October because his lawyers missed a deadline, Douglas said.

In Jamaica, which has not executed a prisoner in 20 years, a Senate vote Friday cleared the way for an amendment to bypass the Privy Council's rulings. The lower house gave its approval last month for the measure to make executions easier.

Jamaica, an island of 3 million people, has been hit the hardest with more than 1,240 killings reported this year. Chicago, a city of about 2.8 million, reported 443 homicides in 2007.

But Nancy Anderson, a lawyer with the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights, said capital punishment will not deter crime because fewer than a third of the island's homicides ever result in convictions.

"Nobody's thinking far down the line whether they'll be executed," she said. "We need a better police force, more investigative skills, better technology."

Brian Evans, an anti-capital punishment activist with Amnesty International USA, said the Caribbean is breaking from a trend in which two-thirds of nations have now abolished capital punishment or not used it in 10 years. He said it is an understandable response to high-crime rates but it "is not an effective response."

But some islanders see it as a solution.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, a twin-island federation of nearly 40,000 people that has seen its murder rate climb to 23 this year from 17 in 2007, Douglas pledged earlier this month to punish killers to the full extent of the law.

"I want an end to this madness that is taking place in this beloved country," he said in a national radio address.

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.

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

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