The Court held the sentence to be a clear violation of the right to a fair trial, because it is effectively fixed by Parliament and not determined by an independent judge. Further, as there is no real prospect of ever being released, the sentence is inhuman and degrading punishment.
The decision followed a referral of Gregory August’s matter by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to the Belize Court of Appeal because it raised “issues of great general and public importance” which it desired the local court to consider before making its own ruling.
August was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012 for a murder committed when he was just 19 years old. In Belize, prisoners convicted of murder are not eligible for parole, regardless of the severity of their crime, their behaviour in prison or their potential for rehabilitation. This means the prisoner’s sentence can only be reduced if the Governor General grants mercy – a process which lies purely at the grace and favour of the government and without any clear guidance as to what the prisoner must do in order to be released.
In its judgment, delivered 4th November, the Belize Court of Appeal held that process to be “far from satisfactory”. It also took note of the fact that the Belize Advisory Council, the mercy committee in Belize, rarely functioned and had not once recommended early release for any life term prisoner. That meant August’s sentence was effectively irreducible, because it was highly unlikely that clemency would ever be exercised in his favour.
Nor was August given any opportunity to present mitigating factors which might justify the judge imposing a less harsh sentence, which was a breach of his right to a fair trial. Given August’s young age at the time and the circumstances of the offence, the sentence of life imprisonment without parole was declared “grossly disproportionate” and “inhumane”.
The Court re-sentenced August to 30 years imprisonment, which means he becomes eligible for release after serving 15 years.
The Death Penalty Project has previously raised concerns about the ineffectiveness of the Belize mercy procedure in its 2014 report, Behind the Prison Gates, published in association with the Bar Association of Belize.
The Decision by the Belize Court of Appeal follows in the footsteps of Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court which, in July this year, declared that life imprisonment without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of human dignity. A similar issue falls to be considered in relation to Trinidad and Tobago by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in April 2017 in the case of Lendore & Ors v The State.
The Government of Belize will now have to consider whether it wishes to appeal the Court’s decision. Since the case was referred by the CCJ, any final determination will be made by that court.
Note to Editors
The Death Penalty Project assisted local attorney, Eamon Courtenay SC, Anthony Sylvestre and Iliana Swift, the Belize legal team in this appeal, with the support of UK barristers James Guthrie QC, Rowan Pennington-Benton of 3 Hare Court, who were instructed pro bono and Amanda Clift-Matthews (In-house Counsel).