By Jomo Sanga Thomas*
(“Plain Talk”, Dec. 13, 2019)
A commitment to stand on the side of the poor and marginalised, the downtrodden and despised, for unpopular causes and against the privileged and powerful, is always hazardous business. Far too often, your stance is mischaracterised and pilloried. Attacks on the advocate’s character and beliefs become the stock for those against whom the advocate stands. Even sections of the population whom the advocate defends and some who know better join in the campaign of assassination and alienation.
But progressive advocacy is akin to a life sentence proudly served because the change agent knows deep in his heart that the causes she champions are just. Even though success is few and far between, and perils lurk around every corner, and the powers that be imagine your fall by his hand, on his sword, the advocate pushes on with the commitment that comes from what Craig Hedges calls “sublime madness”. A feeling that you have gone too far to turn back. One can, therefore, only embrace the mantra: Never give up, never give in.
And so, the announcement this week that St. Vincent and the Grenadines will get a second permanent, criminal court is welcome news that is long overdue. It is a position that Plain Talk has constantly called. A view outlined in columns and on radio that “Justice in SVG has Two Faces”. Evidently, this long campaign is finally paying dividend. We claim no exclusive credit for the coming of the court. Had it not been for frequent calls for prisoners’ rights, justice and the rule of law this announcement might have had to wait for another time. Far more respected persons like Justice Adrian Saunders, who sounded the alarm and declared that the criminal justice system in the Caribbean was broken, must take even more credit.
There is a huge backlog in criminal cases. Defendants wait for far too many years for their day in court. This delay amounts to a vicious assault on the liberty of prisons, due process and speedy trial rights of the accused.
For example, if a well-behaved man, accused of murder, waits six years before being tried, and at his trial pleas guilty for manslaughter and is sentenced to nine years in jail, he gets no credit for the time he has languished in prison. Had he been tried and sentenced shortly after arrest and sentenced to nine years, with the prison credit he would have left in six years. When he waits six years for trial and is sentenced to nine years, that prisoner ends up spending a total of eight years in prison because the sentencing judge only credits the convicted man with the remand time, which is six years.
The magistracy is also under stress. Kingstown Magistrate Court is without a magistrate. Because Magistrate Burnett has been called to higher duty as a master, cases are heard in the Serious Offences Court more like a conveyor belt sideshow.
Earlier in the year, cases were postponed for more than five months, with serious repercussions especially for persons on remand. Some of these persons spent more time locked down because of administrative neglect than if they were promptly tried and sentenced. Some, whose offense carried no jail time, lost their liberty for months because they were unable to make bail and there was no magistrate to try their cases.
There is a clear bias for the rights of the privileged in SVG. There are two judges and a master attending to civil matters and only one criminal court judge. This may be because criminal justice is taken seriously only to the extent that presumed bad persons are arrested and jailed. The clear bias reflects a preference for property rights over liberty. But as Harry Belafonte once told Fidel Castro, “show me the conditions in your prisons and I will tell you about your country”. Therefore, the pending opening of an additional criminal court is welcomed news that may help to ease the serious overcrowding in our prisons. So much for advocacy.
Advocates never know if or when their ideas will take hold. They simply plod on with the hope that someone somewhere will be attracted to the idea and turn it into meaningful policy. Marx did say that ideas become a material force when they grip the masses.
We watch with amazement when “fringe” ideas go mainstream.
The idea that government must refrain from selling lands to foreigners and instead get the foreign business developer to offer locals an equity share was floated during the proposed construction of the Buccama Resort. Mitchell’s NDP callous give away of Canouan was criticised and the equity share concept was also raised when the developers proposed new projects including a marina there. Plain Talk was again criticised for making the equity argument. It was said that we were against foreign direct investment. We were pleasantly surprised when a high government official embraced the idea and disclosed that instead of selling priced land government decided to do an equity swap arrangement with the same Canouan developers.
During the last elections, the fringe idea to marry idle hands with idle lands was proposed as a way not only to revive agriculture, but to also ensure that the younger generation gain an appreciation through hands on experience that there is a good living to be made from the lands. The average age of our farmers is about 50. While this proposal never gained acceptance by the government, opposition politician St. Clair Leacock has given it “legs”.
There is also the proposal to retrofit and turn the unused vegetable market into a modern Hall of Justice. The structure is large and can house the Magistrate Court, Serious Offenses court, High Court (Civil and Criminal divisions), Appeal Court and the Registrar’s Office. Most of these courts are in rented property, and huge sums could be saved in the coming years. Our proposal was criticised, with a stream of obscenities, by a government minister whose idea was for the market be transformed into a mall.
Queen’s Counsel Parnell Campbell thought it was an excellent idea, but there were no takers. A few weeks ago, the pro-government radio programme “Issue at Hand”, anchored by Cecil Ryan, seems to be warming to the idea. May government be next.
Cruise Ship terminal at Campden Park anyone? SVG must become a free market place of ideas if we are to develop.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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