Judiciary clarifies law surrounding proposed release of 60 prisoners

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

FILE PHOTO: The Hall of Justice, Port of Spain. –

In a response to allegations made in a release sent to the media by Chaguanas West MP Dinesh Rambally, claiming that the Judiciary may be overstepping its bounds and undermining the process in relation to pardoning offenders through the mercy committee, the Judiciary said, constitutionally, it plays a role in the mercy process.

Rambally’s allegations were made in relation to a request to government, made by the executive of the Criminal Bar Association, to release 60 deserving prisoners as part of the 60th anniversary of independence, to be observed on August 31.

In a statement issued on Saturday, after claiming the Judiciary was not part of the constitutional process for pardoning prisoners, Rambally alleged that “certain instructions were given to the Judiciary through which some of its staff members were mandated to assist with an ongoing ‘Mercy Committee’ project during the week of August 8 2022.”

“Approximately 13 judicial research counsel in conjunction with the Registrar’s office have been allegedly sifting through court files with a view to compiling a list of eligible people to be recommended for pardon,” Rambally said in the release.

He said the power of pardon is governed by the combined effects of sections 87, 88 and 89 of the constitution. The Advisory Committee, Rambally said, consists of the Minister referred to in section 87(3), the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and four members appointed by the president after consultation with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

In a response on Sunday, the Judiciary sought to clarify the law surrounding the process.

“The Judiciary does in fact constitutionally play a role in the Mercy process. The Judiciary has operated in furtherance of the very section 89 of the Constitution referenced and erroneously or disingenuously explained in the (Rambally’s) press release.

“Section 89 (1) of the Constitution outlines the functions of the Advisory Committee and states that: ‘Where an offender has been sentenced to death by any Court for an offence against the law of Trinidad and Tobago, the minister shall cause a written report of the case from the trial judge, together with such other information derived from the record of the case or elsewhere as the minister may require, to be taken into consideration at a meeting of the Advisory Committee.’”

The Judiciary explained that the permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security requested the records of cases in relation to people who were sentenced to death by the Court and are seeking presidential pardon.

The release said contrary to allegations made by Rambally, the Judiciary did not compile a list of people eligible for pardon.

The Judiciary said that many of the candidates had very old matters and the its staff had to search its archives to compile the files. The Registrar and the Court Administration Unit compiled the files while the Judicial Research Counsel and the Courts Records Unit reviewed them.

The Judiciary pointed out that many of the files would have been very lengthy and detailed, and it might not have been possible to have attained the records from the trial judges because they were either retired or dead.

“The Judiciary pulled together a team of legally trained staff to prepare a factual summary of the records. Copies of the documents requested and the summaries for each were forwarded to the permanent secretary, the acting Chief Justice, Mr Justice Allan Mendonca, the Court Executive Administrator. The Registrar maintained oversight of the exercise.”

The statement added that the exercise gave rise to a number of covid19 infections causing a portion of staff to be quarantined and the Hall of Justice to be temporarily closed as an in-person faciltity as a result. The operations of the Hall of Justice were reverted to virtual hearing only for the duration of the quarantine which ends on Monday.

Describing Rambally’s media release as “erroneous” and “unfortunate” the Judiciary suggested that the Chaguanas West MP should have fact-checked the release’s content before publishing it.

“As with all scuttlebutt, the facts tend to be abandoned for a more disruptive narrative,” the Judiciary said. “The Judiciary notes with increasing concern the carelessness which people who have an audience approach matters that involve perceived threats to the independence of the judiciary.

“It is highly irresponsible and dangerous to our democracy and to peace order and good governance for anyone, especially anyone in a position of responsibility who has the ear of the public to publish erroneous information.”

In 2012, the People’s Partnership government had proposed to release 50 prisoners to commemorate TT’s 50th anniversary of independence, but the process was stalled by the deliberations of the Mercy Committee.

Newsday attempted to reach Attorney General Reginald Armour, Minister in the Ministry of Attorney General Renuka Sagramsingh-Sooklal and Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds for comment but attempts were unsuccessful.