The 'Grenada 17':Time for freedom?

By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
October 17, 1999

THE apologies by the 17 convicted murderers for the deaths of a Prime Minister, 10 Cabinet and party colleagues 16 years ago in Grenada, and their pleas for release from prison, raise a profound moral issue, particularly for opponents of the death penalty.

When a death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, does it really mean languishing in prison until death? In our region there is no known accepted guideline for what constitutes `life imprisonment'.

Lawyers have explained to me that strange as it may seem to some, a life sentence could be, based on the circumstances, for a short period of seven to 10 years, or no more than 30-35 years.

And what about gaining freedom from imprisonment, after 16 years, with confessions and apologies - the case of the so-called notorious `Grenada 17' of Bernard Coard and others?

They have finally admitted their responsibility for the executions of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and ten of his colleagues during a counter-revolution. They have apologised and begged for forgiveness.

Is it not time for them to be freed back into society? Or should the `eye-for-eye' philosophy prevail, leaving them to rot and die in prison where they are now being officially hailed as "model prisoners" who have put behind them all the terrible wrongs, and the ideology, for which they were known and hated?

For those of us who had successfully supported the commutation of the death sentences for the `Grenada 17' to life imprisonment, and also condemned the once terrible prison conditions to which they were subjected, as exposed by Phyllis Coard in particular, it is not comfortable to ignore today's confessions and apologies at Richmond Hill.

Nor is it by any means comfortable to ignore the question from others if it would be okay should all death row prisoners were to now confess guilt, apologise, plead for freedom and be released into society.

Unprecedented Case

We are faced with a profound moral issue in the case of the `Grenada 17'. It is a situation as unprecedented in our Caribbean history as the revolutionary assault on the corrupt government of Eric Gairy back in March, 1979 when the Bishop-led New Jewel Movement turned Westminster parliamentary system of government on its head in the Spice Isle.

As the debate on whether or not to free the `Grenada 17' continues, there are those who argue in favour of a distinction in murder cases between a crime of passion and death in armed conflict. The jury is still out on this agonising question.

The inclination has been to be more forgiving in situations of armed conflict, as was the case in Grenada in 1983 when what Fidel Castro had described as a "big revolution in a small island", literally devoured itself and plunged an entire sub-region in this hemisphere into crisis and rendered more vulnerable to the machinations of superpower U.S.A.

Bishop, the symbol of Grenada's revolutionary experiment in national reconstruction based on Marxist-Leninist indoctrination, and 10 of his very close and militant comrades, were executed on October 19, 1983, on the orders of a hardline military corps, of which Coard was a most influential figure and the island's foremost pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist theoretician.

It was an unimaginable political tragedy in the modern history of the anglophone Caribbean. It was to climax with United States military invasion of the island, the end of a revolutionary government and the subsequent trial and murder convictions of 17, headed by Coard, the No. 2 man of `The Revo' - as the youthful, enthusiastic Grenadian radicals loved to call it - and including his Jamaica-born wife, Phyllis.

For the second time in some three years, the Grenada Government of Prime Minister Keith Mitchell has permitted the prison authority to arrange for a group of journalists, among them Lennox Grant, Editor-in-Chief of the `Guardian', to interview the infamous `Grenadian 17' whose death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

Grant has been offering his very descriptive and analytical accounts resulting from the interview with Coard and others at the Richmond Hill prison in Grenada.

His own agony in coming to terms with the mayhem, the slaughter, the trauma of the implosion of the `revo' and, more precisely, the confessions of and pleas for freedom of the convicted murderers of Bishop and others is not concealed.

When the first organised media interview took place in 1996, Coard and the others, now officially hailed as "model prisoners" who have earned degrees and taught others academically - accepted "political responsibility" for the massacre at Fort Rupert and the destruction of the People's Revolutionary Government (PRG).

Then last month, as the 16th anniversary of the self-destruction of their `revo', in a mind-boggling bloody crisis, was approaching - Tuesday, October 19 - Coard and Ewart Layne, ex-commander of what existed as a People's Revolutionary Army (PRA), offered written apologies to the selected media corps and pleaded for forgiveness.

'Mea culpa' time

This time they have accepted both political and `moral' responsibility and offered apologies on behalf of all 17 prisoners who have maintained their claims against an unfair trial by what they had described at the time as a "kangaroo court".

It would be interesting to know what Bishop's mother, Alimenta, whose husband was murdered during the oppressive and corrupt regime of Gairy, and the survivors of all the victims of those killed on `bloody October 19' think of the confessions and apologies.

The new sense of remorse by the `Grenada 17' comes at a period of an apparent `mea culpa' syndrome that has gripped many Jamaicans, including elements who were once identified with the Coard faction within the New Jewel Movement (NJM) and the PRG, and who are now apologising publicly either for wrongs committed or complicity by silence.

Perhaps it is also `mea culpa' time for that Guyanese politician of a once promising radical small party in Georgetown to also say sorry for his own involvement with the Coard faction during the crisis that exploded in executions and military invasion and incarceration. At some stage, as is happening in Jamaica, names will soon be called in Guyana also.

Given their access to information in prison where they are regarded as a special breed of prisoners, often highly commended for their behaviour by prison officials, Coard, Layne and others, would also be aware of the soul-searching taking place in Jamaica with confessions and calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We have to wait and see if this mood of mea culpa may also reach Guyana where such a Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems also quite relevant for the massive political wrongs done to a people - the brutalities, assassinations, including that of Walter Rodney, the electoral fraud that became a norm, destruction of judicial independence and all the evils associated with the heinous doctrine of "party paramountcy".

The recurring big question, however, is: Now that Coard and company have accepted responsibility - without calling names of who actually did what on that bloody October 19 at Fort Rupert - and have apologised to the survivors of the victims, should their pleas for release back into society be given positive consideration!

Implicit in the Grenada Government's facilitating of the publicised media interviews with the prisoners is an indication of its own sentiment favouring forgiveness and freedom from prison. If this perception is incorrect, then Prime Minister Mitchell perhaps has an obligation to make a statement of his own.

Ironically, as I recall, one of Grenada's leading journalists now very much in the forefront for the release of those condemned for the murder of Bishop and others, remains opposed to the renaming of the Point Salines airport after Maurice Bishop. It is generally recognised that it was the best known development project of Bishop's government with significant Cuban aid.

For some such Grenadians, it would seem that forgiving and consenting to the release of convicted murderers after their admission of guilt and apologies to the survivors of their victims, is more appropriate, or less painful, than accepting why an airport should rightly bear the name of Maurice Bishop.

We now await word from the Mercy Committee in Grenada to the pleas for freedom from imprisonment by Coard and others while the mystery remains about the missing bodies of the slain Bishop and colleagues.

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