Government’s promise to release 50 prisoners as part of the commemoration of the country’s 50th anniversary of Independence has hit a snag. In a telephone interview yesterday, Justice Minister Herbert Volney, said the promise to pardon 50 prisoners, announced during a post-Cabinet briefing in June, is yet to be fulfilled. He explained that because the selection process had to be meticulous and well thought-out, the Mercy Committee was still compiling the list of names to be submitted to President George Maxwell Richards. Volney refused to reveal the names of serving inmates who have been submitted up to this time and would not say whether anyone had been released. However, he said while 30 names had already been submitted, "Last week, a further eight were signed off,” he added. The Mercy Committee, which he chairs, is expected to meet at the end of this month.
Asked if the recommendations thus far had been accepted by the President, Volney said, "The President has the executive discretion to accept or reject the recommendations of the Mercy Committee. Once I have agreed to the recommendations of the Mercy Committee, it does not come back to me unless the President does not accept the recommendation. “If he does, that is something that will come to me in time, as the President returns the instrument and it is forwarded to the Prisons Commissioner.” Volney said while it was the Government’s intention to mark the Independence anniversary with the “pardon and early release of serving inmates," it was equally important” to be careful, in trying to accomplish the desire, that we do not offend people, especially the sensitivities of the victims, and that is why we are taking our time in selecting persons." Pressed to say if there was a deadline for the remaining numbers to be submitted, Volney said, “It is a Jubilee year and we are still celebrating and still working on the 50 names. “In the normal course, persons have to apply to be pardoned, but in this case, we instituted the process by having the Prisons Commissioner help by recommending prisoners, and this will continue until 50 are pardoned. We will revert to the normal process after the 50 names are selected."
Warning that one could not expect to see 50 prisoners being released at once, Volney said, “It is a work in progress, because after the President signs off, there is an administrative lull where the matter is processed at the prisons within a short time and then the prisoner is released.” He said the continued submission of names would not affect the release of prisoners whose names had been submitted and accepted early on. Asked if the Ministry of Justice or the prison authorities were obligated to make public the names of prisoners who had been pardoned, Volney said, “We do not have to inform anyone, because these prisoners have been carefully selected and we do not think they pose a threat to society. We have been very careful and sensitive to the feelings of victims and prisoners, who are also entitled to some level of privacy, and in that regard, that is why we have not been able to achieve the number as quickly as we hoped." In a release after the announcement in June, the Justice Ministry said prisoners selected for pardon would be subjected to stringent screening by the Commissioner of Prisons, after which their names would be presented to the Advisory Committee on the Power of Pardon (the Mercy Committee) for recommendation to President Richards.
The statement also listed ten categories of prisoners who could qualify for pardon:
• first-time offenders with exemplary conduct
• non-violent offenders
• prisoners unlikely to re-offend
• people committing minor offences with sentences of less than four years
• prisoners who are chronically ill, old/infirm, near their remission date
• prisoners who have undergone rehabilitation
• prisoners with supportive families
• prisoners whose release would not cause a public outcry.
Prisons Commissioner Martin Martinez did not answer calls to his cellphone yesterday or reply to text messages.