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Trinidad and Tobago

The new Government is considering restoring capital punishment

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The Guardian

Trinidad and Tobago in a quandary over death penalty

Island paradise has such a high murder rate that the new government is considering restoring capital punishment

A surveillance airship in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, added to crimefighting resources ito reduce record levels of murder. Photograph: Shirley Bahadur/AP

Over the course of four days beginning on 4 June 1999, Nankisoon Boodram (aka Dole Chadee) and eight of his criminal gang were hanged in Port of Spain, Trinidad, for the murder of one of their alleged associates and his family. I understand that on the day of Chadee's hanging, a man was murdered at a gas station one block away from the gallows and another was murdered in the sleepy fishing village of Mayaro. These, and the countless other murders which followed that weekend of hangings, are the examples given by opponents of the mandatory death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago to demonstrate the senselessness of government-sanctioned homicide as a deterrent for murder.

Capital punishment might still be on the statute book, but no one has been executed here since that same year, 1999. The debate over the death penalty has renewed since a new government was elected in May with a strong commitment to cutting the climbing murder rate.

However, the abolitionist voices appear to be in the minority in this twin-island republic where the new prime minister has predicted that there will be 550 murders by the end of the year. As a point of reference, in 2005 the murder rate in Trinidad was 19 times that in England and 16 times that in Canada . Violent crime is a terrifying reality in a nation of only 1.3 million people occupying two islands whose combined surface area is approximately 5,000 sq km. In the case of crime, you see, size matters.

In a small place, you know your neighbours. We know each other's licence plate numbers, telephone numbers and where we bank. There are only so many schools that your children might attend and places that you might frequent for a drink after work or a theatrical performance. Life is intimate. It is this intimacy that exacerbates the effects of crime.

In New York City, where I lived for years, I knew two people who had been mugged in the late 1970s and none since. In Trinidad, we all know people who have been robbed, kidnapped, raped or murdered. It is not a pretty picture for a place that is meant to look something like paradise. In this context, it is no surprise that many people have called for a resumption of the death sentence; these include a senior cabinet minister and recent acting prime minister, who says he believes it will make a dent on crime.

Trinidad and Tobago is one of only a few countries in the world where the penalty for all types of murder, whatever the circumstances, is death. However, as a university report reveals, the conviction rate for murder in Trinidad is so low, the death penalty is clearly not an effective deterrent.

Douglas Mendes, a University of the West Indies lecturer and abolitionist, adds that the most effective deterrent for crime is the speed of capture and conviction rather than the nature of the punishment. Gregory Delzin, another local attorney who has appeared in death-penalty cases since 1989, believes firmly that criminal activity is motivated by the benefits of crimes and not the consequences. The likelihood of the process of the law being invoked successfully is what creates respect for the law. Both advocates believe that if the local police force had the tools and personnel necessary to detect crimes quickly and apprehend wrong-doers, it would deny criminals the fruit of their labour and thereby reduce the criminal incentive. This would need to operate in tandem with a judicial system in which matters are dealt with expeditiously and a prison system which invests in rehabilitation.

In The Hanging Tree – Execution and the English People 1770-1868, the author, Vic Gatrell, reviews that period in English history when hanging was the preferred punishment for many crimes, including picking pockets, and where children could be executed for stealing. The great irony is that high rates of pickpocketing were recorded at these very public executions.

Stepping away from those most directly connected to the legal process, I asked a Trinidadian artist his view on the government's intention to conduct more hangings. "What we need to do," he said, "is plant 1,000 immortelle trees on the hills of San Fernando and ask everyone in Laventille to paint their houses white."

When you see yourself as beautiful, you don't want to do ugly again.

This seemed to me an artist's equivalent of the broken window criminological theory that if you raise the psyche of a community by fixing the small things, it will have a positive impact on the temptation to deface one's surroundings and even reduce the tendency to commit serious crimes. In this small place, perhaps this is where we should all start.

Maxine Williams is a lawyer with international and human rights experience

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