Summary: Belize Court of Appeal declares life imprisonment without parole violates basic human rights

9th November 2016: The Belize Court of Appeal has found mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole breaches fundamental human rights. SRT grantee the Death Penalty Project assisted the local legal team in Belize and instructed UK barristers pro bono to advise on the case.

The decision followed a referral of Gregory August’s case at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to the Belize Court of Appeal. 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 on 4th November, the 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, meaning that 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 Government of Belize will now have to consider whether it wishes to appeal the Court’s decision.

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