Monday, November 3, 2008

Opposing the Death Penalty in Jamaica

A few weeks ago, Amnesty International in London contacted us about an upcoming press conference and series of educational events that their Caribbean Team was organizing in Jamaica, for which they hoped to find someone who could speak about losing a family member to execution. MVFHR member Stanley Allridge traveled to Jamaica from Texas for these events, and James Burke, from Amnesty's Caribbean Team, now writes with this report:

The last execution in Jamaica was carried out in 1988. However, death sentences continue to be passed and the Jamaican authorities continually complain about judicial decisions and processes which in their eyes prevent executions being carried out. Recent opinion polls have shown that public support for the death penalty appears to be very high. This is linked with concerns with the increase of violent crime and the seeming inability of the Jamaican authorities to combat it. 2008 could be a record year for total number of homicides.

With a parliamentary debate on the death penalty imminent in Jamaica, the Independent Jamaican Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) and Amnesty International were looking for a speaker to travel to the country in order to campaign on this issue at events coinciding with the World Day Against the Death Penalty. We were fortunate that Stanley Allridge from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and MVFHR was available and willing to travel to Jamaica for such an undertaking.

Stanley spoke at several public events and carried out a number of media interviews. On Thursday 8 October there was press conference held by the IJCHR, AI Jamaica, and members of the Jamaican Catholic Church, where Stanley spoke. Later that day Stanley spoke at a high school in Kingston. The students were aged 14-18 and at the outset the students were overwhelmingly in favour of the death penalty. Stanley was very impressed by the interaction he saw among the students. As he was recounting his experiences and explaining how frequently innocent people are executed he said he saw “lightbulbs go on” in the children and could see that many were reevaluating their beliefs. Following the meeting some of the students asked how they could get involved in campaigning against the death penalty and on other human rights issues.

On Friday 9 October there was a debate at the Law School of the University of West Indies, which was very well attended and quite a heated debate ensued. The majority of attendees were law students who once again were overwhelmingly in support of the death penalty. Although these students were less open to persuasion than the high school students, Stanley believed he was able to successfully challenge their assumptions on the issue, and several audience members were openly moved by the stories he had to tell.

On Saturday 10 October Stanley travelled to speak at a public forum in Montego Bay, on the other side of the island, which was attended by the members of local groups such as Montego Bay Citizen Association, Catholic mothers and the Private Sector association.

Throughout his time in Jamaica Stanley carried out several media interviews. The majority of these were with Jamaican radio stations. Radio is Jamaicans' principal source of information. Stanley was interviewed in debate with other guests and fielded calls from the general public, and would have reached a great amount of the Jamaican population in these interviews.

Although Stanley recognized that campaigning on this issue in Jamaica is difficult given the general support for the death penalty in Jamaica and the escalating rate of violent crime, he believed that education campaigns, especially for schoolchildren, could have a huge impact.

Members of the IJCHR and AI Jamaica have said that Stanley was a very charismatic and effective speaker and that it was a privilege and a pleasure to work with him. Amnesty International Secretariat would like to echo those comments and it is our hope that we will be able to work with Stanley again in the future.

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