GREAT BAY – The Large Chamber of the European Court for the protection of Human Rights has ruled last week on the case of three British inmates that are serving life sentences. The ruling is important for imposing and executing life sentences in the Netherlands – and by extension in St. Maarten. The ruling could influence the appeals of Omar Jones and Carlos Richardson who are currently serving life sentences for a spate of murders in 2011.
According to the Human rights Court it must be possible to shorten a life sentence and it must also offer a perspective on release. In the Netherlands, as in St,. Maarten, convicts with a life sentence are able to ask for a pardon. The Dutch Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten and his State Secretary Fred Teeven are of the opinion that convicts with a life sentence cannot return to freedom unless they obtain a pardon and that in principle a life sentence must literally last a lifetime. According to Opstelten and Teeven nothing is done about re-socializing lifers during the execution of their sentence.
The Dutch Legal Newspaper wrote last week about the ruling that the court’s considerations give reason to assume that the Dutch execution policy violates article 3 of the European Human Rights Treaty. “Even imposing a life sentence has thereby become questionable,” the newspaper wrote.
To ensure that it is possible to shorten life sentences and to offer convicts a perspective on their freedom the state has to have dedicated mechanisms in place. This procedure must be in place at the time when the court imposes the life sentence. “If this is not the case then the punishment violates from the beginning the ban on inhumane treatment,” the paper reported.
The court bases its position on two grounds. The first one is that a punishment without perspective carries the risk that the convict cannot do penance for what he did wrong; whatever he does, in whatever way he develops, it does not offer him relief. On the contrary, the court noted, the punishment becomes heavier as time goes by. It is hardly possible to reconcile this with the principle of proportionality.
The Human Rights Court furthermore agrees with the German Constitutional court that a life sentence without perspective violates the human dignity.
The court writes in its ruling that most European countries apply the principle of re-socialization with the execution of life sentences. These countries have a procedure to review the punishment and they apply it. In St. Maarten the parliament took article 28 out of the new penal code. This article gave convicts with a life sentence the right to a review of their sentence after twenty years. The Constitutional Court is currently contemplating whether omitting the article violates the constitution.
The Common Court of Justice already mitigated the life sentences of the two Regatta-killers last year to 30 years because it felt that the political climate in St. Maarten offered no perspective to convicts with a life sentence.
The Human Rights Court notes that the principle of re-socialization is internationally accepted. “This means that during the execution the possibility of re-socialization must be offered.”
The three British lifers who took their case to the Human Rights Court have only two options for a shortened sentence: they have to be terminally ill, or they must have a severe physical handicap. While it is also possible to grant a pardon on other grounds, these are not anchored in British law. It is therefore uncertain whether, and if so when, they would qualify for release based on these grounds. According to the Human Rights Court this offers insufficient legal security to speak of the required possibility to shorten their sentence.