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Rights charter sits in limbo

Published:Tuesday | April 6, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Daraine Luton, Senior Staff Reporter

THE DECISION by parliamentarians to retain the death penalty is strangling the Charter of Rights, which continues to languish on the parliamentary agenda.

The Government had earmarked February 24 for the passage of the landmark legislation in the House of Representatives, but Parliament prorogued before lawmakers could consider the amendment.

Leader of Government Business Andrew Holness told The Gleaner yesterday that the Government remains fully committed to the passage of the Charter of Rights. He, however, was not in a position to explain why the bill was not passed last legislative year.

"It is something that we consider to be of great importance and it will be treated early within the new legislative year," Holness said.

However, A.J. Nicholson, the opposition spokesman on justice, has suggested that the Charter of Rights has not been taken to the vote stage because of issues regarding the death penalty.

He told The Gleaner that a bill which would avoid the Pratt and Morgan ruling and allow for the retention of the death penalty will have to be tabled in Parliament before the vote on the Charter of Rights is taken. This argument was confirmed by a senior government minister who refused to be named.

Dorothy Lightbourne, the minister of justice, could not be reached for comment.

Constitutional reform

The Charter of Rights represents an attempt by the Government to replace Chapter Three of the Constitution - fundamental rights and freedoms. It places on the state an obligation to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and freedoms for all persons in Jamaica and affords protection to the rights and freedoms of persons as set out in those provisions.

The Charter of Rights proposes that Parliament shall pass no law and establish no organ of the state which abrogates, abridges or infringes the fundamental rights of citizens. The legislation has been sitting on the table of the House of Representatives since November 1 last year.

Yesterday, Nicholson told The Gleaner that had Prime Minister Bruce Golding brought legislation to Parliament to circumvent the Pratt and Morgan ruling (as did Barbados), the Charter of Rights would have already been passed.

"If you are going to go the Barbados route, you have to make either some changes to the charter or you bring a separate bill which would do away with the five-year stricture because the Parliament voted that we should retain the death penalty," Nicholson said.

Based on the Pratt and Morgan ruling by the Privy Council, a condemned man cannot be executed if his process of appeals lasts more than five years from the date of his sentencing.

Under Jamaican laws, the amendment of any entrenched section of the Constitution requires that the bills sit for three months after first reading and three months after second reading before it can be considered and passed. The bill has passed the stages of first and second reading.