Sunday 1st May, 2005

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Who can’t hear will feel?

The Minister of National Security has suggested that the crime situation is not as bad as people are making out, that in fact the security forces have identified the main areas where crime is prevalent and are dealing with it. The Police Commissioner was not far behind this rather complacent attitude, talking about “locking down” certain parts of the country to control the crime there.

Both these assertions come in the wake of the farcical statement of the Prime Minister, Friday before last, when he said at a public meeting, “Cabinet will consider very shortly a proposal for the re-introduction of corporal punishment.” He promised that criminals must get strokes since “who can’t hear will feel.”

It is, to say the least, worrying that the head of our Government and National Security Council, someone who has been in Parliament for over 30 years, should talk of “re-introducing” corporal punishment when it never went away, as attested to by the Corporal Punishment Act.

No matter what spin one chooses to put on his words, it is clear that the PM did not have a clue as to what he was taking about, although a PNM Government of which he was head had amended the very Act to clarify its provisions. Someone offered to me that what the Prime Minister “really meant” was that judges do not impose strokes, so Cabinet was going to change that. That person must be a mind reader then as this is entirely different from what the PM actually said.

In any event, who says corporal punishment is not utilised as a form of punishment? The law provides that a male offender may be sentenced to be whipped, in addition to any other punishment to which he may be liable (imprisonment) for certain offences of violence such as rape, robbery and wounding by means of a sharp instrument.

Up to last year, I had a matter in the Appeal Court, where persons convicted of wounding by chopping and sentenced to strokes sought to challenge the strokes. Two weeks ago, a similar challenge was made in respect of another convicted person. The point is judges are imposing corporal punishment but naturally they do so selectively—as they should.

Thank goodness the determination of what punishment to impose is still within the province of the courts and not subject to the changing whims of politicians.

State of emergency

Here, in one breath, we have a PM talking about beating prisoners and in another, of rehabilitation for those who “want” to be rehabilitated. Frankly, most prisoners that I have come in contact with do want to change their lives but by and large, current conditions in our prisons are not exactly conducive to this. This is so of the State Prison, in particular, and much has been written of that “Dark Hole of Calcutta” in this column.

Suffice it to say that it is really the sign of a desperate man, who has little new to offer when he has to resort to talk of beating people as a means of deterrence from crime.

I know that some parents believe spanking is good for disciplining a child. However, we are not talking of children or of a few smacks. These are adults who will be whipped with either a tamarind, birch or other switch and whose beating must be witnessed by a medical officer—this fact alone would indicate that this is serious business.

In most civilised countries of the world, corporal punishment has been outlawed as it is deemed to be both inhumane and dehumanising. It is also felt that violence begets violence and those who are beaten by order of the State may then deem the State and its officers no better than themselves.

Those issues obviously call for wider debate. However, the real irony is that while our PM scrambles around and offers desperate (and foolish) measures in an attempt to alleviate public concern in the face of the crime spree 10 days ago, the Minister seeks to deny that there is a real problem.

If the situation is not as bad as is made out, then tell us what is the truth of the matter? When criminals can flagrantly and in broad daylight come to the centre of the downtown shopping area in the capital city and shoot up the place, is this not cause for concern? If criminals can boldly shoot at the police the next day and if two prison officers can be murdered in their hometown, are we to feel anyone is secure?

What the Minister fails to grasp is that these public shootings and killings convey that no one is safe anywhere and at any time. Telling us that crime is being contained when we see evidence to the contrary just makes him and the police look foolish. Furthermore, if it is known where most of the crimes are being committed, as is claimed, it should follow that it is also known by whom.

Why, therefore, is the detection rate the lowest ever for murder (some 25 per cent)? Why is there this prevalence of hard drugs in the country? Someone is bringing them in, surely. Why are communities forced to take their own action in the face of fears of kidnappings, carjackings and the like? Answer me that!

Amid all of this is suddenly this talk of “lockdown”. If this has to happen at all, should it be by announcement? In any event, the time for that was more than a year ago, when the authorities were still burying their heads on the sand. Even now they are still in denial while the rest of the country is crying out for some solutions and responsible leadership in treating with these crucial concerns.

Perhaps it is time to consider declaring a state of emergency to effectively treat with our violent crime situation.

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