Lobby against death penalty heats up
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Attorney-at-law Nigel Hughes delivers remarks on the issue of the death penalty in Guyana (Delano Williams photo)
Attorney-at-law Nigel Hughes delivers remarks on the issue of the death penalty in Guyana (Delano Williams photo)

–Hughes warns about dubious confession statements

BETWEEN 80-90 per cent of death penalty convictions in Guyana are based solely on confessions but considering that these can be forcefully solicited, Guyana should move swiftly towards the abolition of capital punishment.

These are the sentiments of Attorney-at-law Nigel Hughes who spoke at public lecture at the National Library organised by the European Union and the British High Commission to examine the use of capital punishment and its possible abolition locally.

Deputy Director of Equal Justice Initiative (USA) Randy Susskind (Samuel Maughn photo)

Facilitating the discussions is a delegation of international experts who are expected to meet with Members of Parliament (MPs) today to further examine the matter. Hughes, in his presentation, recounted a past experience in 1988 as a lawyer on a criminal case and told of the gruesome acts of torture he witnessed being meted out by law officials to a man in custody for his confession in return.

“The Criminal Investigation Department at Eve Leary has consistently earned the reputation for obtaining confessions from people who go there. When you take that into account coupled with the fact that forensic skills generally in the Guyana Police Force are absent…you end up with people who are convicted based on confessions and no scientific evidence to support it,” he explained.

He added: “One of the challenges that we face in Guyana is long before we get to the debate as to whether or not the actual punishment is cruel, its can we trust the system to ensure that the people that are convicted are definitely the people who are charged with the crime and have committed the alleged offence.”

Statistics and reports coming out of the event show that Guyana is the only country in South America to retain the death penalty while 142 countries or approximately 75 per cent of the world’s nations have abolished the death penalty in law and practice.
Offenses which carry the death penalty in Guyana include: murder, treason, various military offences and terrorism-related offenses resulting in death. Although no one has been executed in Guyana in over 20 years, individuals continue to be sentenced to death and there are currently 17 people on death row locally.

Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project (UK) Saul Lehrfreund (Samuel Maughn photo)

While in Guyana, the team of experts intends to present to MPs examples of the abolition of the death penalty in other countries and to learn of the inhibitors to change in Guyana.
In his presentation to the gathering, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project (UK), Saul Lehrfreund, presented a list of reasons as to why the death penalty is a bad criminal justice policy.

He stated that capital punishment is closely related to the era of chattel slavery which was then used as a repressive colonial tool.
His comments were backed by Deputy Director of Equal Justice Initiative (USA), Randy Susskind, who stated that following the abolition of slavery, ex-judicial lynching was then utilised as a public spectacle and to terrorise entire communities.

Susskind said that while some US states still uphold the death penalty, the act was introduced there during a period of “deep seethed racism”.
The duo discredited another held opinion in stating that there is no evidence which proves that the death penalty reduces crime or deters criminals any more than other punishments.
Furthermore, Lehrfreund stated that political leaders, who are of the notion that the public would never accept abolition, must realise that public opinion cannot lead the debate on human rights commitments.

He added that public opinion on the death penalty is often characterised by a lack of knowledge on the subject.
Other reasons against the death penalty he listed are that it is a cruel, barbaric punishment and there is no one flawless system to determine who gets the death penalty.

Members of the audience listen on at the National Library (Delano Williams photo)

Meanwhile, Susskind revealed that there is still much uncharted territory regarding whether persons with mental disorders or illnesses should receive the death penalty.
“I hope that Guyana can take the bold steps, the courageous steps…to lead the people away from death penalty and in doing this, the government needs to explain to people why there is no stake in the death penalty here in Guyana,” he said.

Speaking further on the sidelines he added: “The question now is for political leadership to try to move Guyana into a place where there is no death penalty. The next logical step, having had two decades of de facto moratorium, is to abolish the death penalty in law and that would make Guyana compatible with its neighbours in South America who have all abolished the death penalty and the majority of the world’s nations.”

Meanwhile, EU Ambassador Jernej Videti? commented: “No matter how advanced and meticulous a justice system is, it will always be subject to human mistake. There have always been and there will always be cases of executions of innocent people. And unlike prisons sentences, the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable… I am aware that some justify the death penalty as the ‘an eye for an eye’ but, today, I call on Guyana, a civilised nation with civilised people, to shift its judicial system to one which punishes, but does not kill, to one which pursues justice and not revenge.”

In wrapping up his presentation, Hughes stated that Guyana’s legal system is still one designed to be against a person sentenced to death.

He said in many cases their lawyers are often given limited time to prepare for their cases; the jury is often uses the present police-citizen relationship to determine whether law enforcement would coerce confessions and inadequate social reports are collected.

On this note, he questioned: “When they are about to rebuild the Georgetown prison…will they rebuild the gallows? Because if we do not improve the investigative capacity of the Guyana Police Force and if there is not a migration from the reliance on confessions towards the reliance on scientific proof…can you take the risk with a preponderance of innocent people being sent to the gallows?”

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