Trinidad and Tobago
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Judge: Prison Service must review sentences for 2 ‘lifers’

Jada Loutoo Justice Robin Mohammed -
Justice Robin Mohammed -

TWO convicted prisoners, together serving sentences of more than six decades, will return to the High Court for a review of their sentences after a judge held that the delay by the prison authorities in reviewing their prison terms was unconstitutional.

Leslie Tiwari and Robert Noreiga filed separate constitutional motions which were heard together by Justice Robin Mohammed.

In his decision on Monday, Mohammed granted the declarations the two men sought and also ordered they receive compensation for the breaches of their rights.

The amount will be decided at a later date as the judge asked for submissions on the issue.

He said it was evident that the regime for sentence reviews for life imprisonment was challenged and in need of review.

“The constitutional courts cannot stand idly by awaiting the authorities to get their house in order while the applicants remain detained arbitrarily with no foreseeable hope of release.”

On April 12, 1989, Tiwari was convicted of rape, robbery and arson and sentenced to 30 years of hard labour and 20 strokes with the whip.

Initially, he received consecutive and concurrent sentences. On appeal to the Privy Council, his conviction was affirmed, but his sentences were ordered to run concurrently.

Consecutive sentences follow one another, while concurrent sentences are served simultaneously.

He has spent almost 34 calendar years in prison, and while his sentences for rape and robbery are now spent, he continues to serve a life sentence for arson.

Noriega was convicted on April 27, 1994, for manslaughter and sentenced to life, not to be released before 15 years.

His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. He has spent almost 29 calendar years in prison, some 14 years past the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment.

In both men’s cases, the prison authorities had a duty to do regular four-year reviews of prisoners serving life sentences, to consider the possibility of their release.

The men’s motions said the prison authorities had not done any such reviews, except for one on Noreiga in 2002.

In its defence, the State admitted the authorities did not follow the prison rules, because of a misunderstanding of the law in relation to prisoners awaiting appeal, and because of a backlog of sentence reviews.

In his ruling, Mohammed said, “In the absence of sentence reviews it was reasonable to conclude that the continued detention of the applicants was based primarily on the backlog of sentences reviews which the prison had to conduct for a large number of prisoners.

“It cannot be said that administrative delay is an appropriate reason or causal link to justify the continued deprivation of liberty of the applicants.”

Hence he said the failure to do the four-year reviews to determine the men’s eligibility for early release amounted to a breach of their rights. “Every prisoner was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and every official entrusted with the administration of the Prisons Act was obliged to act fairly and reasonably.”

In their claims, both men asked for their immediate release.

However, the judge said because he did not know what their conduct in custody had been, nor their efforts at rehabilitation and whether they posed a threat to the public, so it would be inappropriate for him to free them.

He also did not believe that ordering the prisons to do a review so that it could be submitted to the Minister of National Security for possible referral to the Mercy Committee would work, because of ‘marked and prolonged” delays in the system.

“...It appears that the long queue of prisoners awaiting review and pardon of their sentences extends not just behind the prison walls but also to the corridors of the Mercy Committee.”

He said there was no clear time frame in which they would get to be heard and have their sentences reviewed by the prison authorities or even the Mercy Committee if a petition were filed.

“In these circumstances, the applicants, though entitled to declarations of unconstitutionality, are left in a continued state of limbo as to their prospects and possibility for release like a hopeful traveller with a passport but no visa or plane ticket in sight.

“Certainly, these declarations by themselves cannot be regarded as appropriate and effective relief to the applicants where their life and liberty remain at stake.”

Both men were represented by Rajiv Persad, Peter Carter, Larry Boyer, Ajesh Sumessar and Vanita Ramroop. Sanjeev Lalla and Brent James appeared for the Attorney General.