Animal protection stalls passing of penal code

PHILIPSBURG - An article in the Penal Code about protecting animals, and fears about its impact on the tradition of cockfighting, stalled the passing of the new Penal Code by Parliament on Thursday afternoon.

Justice Minister Roland Duncan will now return to Parliament this afternoon at 2:00pm to present a review of the article before Members of Parliament (MPs) vote on the new code that will, among other things, abolish capital punishment.
 
The two rounds of debate on the Penal Code had ended when Democratic Party (DP) MP Roy Marlin raised concerns about the article prompting what could be termed a third round of debate. Duncan's response to Marlin's query was that the article did not specifically mention cockfighting or similar activities. It simply seeks to protect animals from pain.
 
The minister argued that the law needs to be put in use to determine how the court will react to issues of what constitute "animal sports." He went further by saying: "How do you determine if the animals are causing harm to themselves in a fight scenario?
 
The progression of this "third round" led to an adjournment during which MPs caucused with Duncan. Some wanted the article completely removed from the Penal Code for it to get their support. The final decision was for the minister to review the article and present a legal position when the session resumes today.
 
When the public session resumes in Parliament House, Duncan will present his position and it will be up to MPs to vote to remove the article or pass the Penal Code with a reference to the protection of animals, an article that can be linked to Article 22 of the Constitution. That article states: "It shall be the constant concern of the government to keep the country habitable and to protect and improve the natural environment and the welfare of animals."
 
The banning of cockfighting was championed when animal welfare organisations had a hearing with parliament in January. Several MPs had already indicated at that time that this was a tradition they were not prepared to tamper with.
 
The groups had drafted a law that seeks to prohibit organised animal fights – dog fights and cock fighting. While MPs were against dog fighting, several deemed cock fighting as an island tradition and were not in favour of banning it.
 
At the start of Thursday's deliberations, Duncan presented five additional amendments to the Penal Code for Parliament's consideration, which included a change from automatic conditional release for prisoners to retaining the current situation where this is determined by the justice minister with advice from several bodies, including the parole board.
 
Conditional release has become a situation "where inmates believe it is their God-given right to not serve their full time."
 
Get out of jail card
 
Another change was to "scratch" the article in the code that offers people serving life imprisonment the possibility of conditional release after 20 years. This article which is in the Curaçao Penal Code has caused much uproar in the community, because a "lifer" has petitioned for release under it. Several thousand Curaçao residents have signed a petition against his release.
 
Duncan said when Parliament was reviewing the draft code "we didn't pay attention to this article." Its repercussion for St. Maarten could well be the same as in Curaçao. Currently, there are four people serving live sentences here; two (of the gypsy taxi murders) are appealing their convictions. The other two lifers are older cases. Of those, one is a Curaçaolean who is serving time for a crime in that island. Duncan intends to discuss his possible transfer to Curaçao with fellow Justice Minister Elmer Wilsoe.
 
Duncan believes there are sufficient provisions in the law to deal with people with life sentences without putting in this article. One option is that they can ask for a pardon or seek regulated conditional release. Not having this clause in the code in no way conflicts with the European Treaty on Human Rights, he said.
 
MPs Leroy de Weever (DP) and George Pantophlet (National Alliance) agreed with Duncan that life-long sentences should be life-long sentences. De Weever said he also believes that the conditional release should stay in the minister's purview.
 
The minister also recommended that MPs do away with the article that calls for prisoners to be released due to a cell shortage. He called this another get out of jail clause. "As a society we have to deal with the cell shortage ... we can't put people back on the streets."
 
The minister has also recommended that the punishment for civil servants who commit a job-related crime should be six instead of four years.
 
MP Dr. Lloyd Richardson (NA) stressed the need for preventive measures against crimes and the development of the needed institution for rehabilitation, which the code demands. Duncan said this was already being looked into.
 
Crime of abortion
 
The Penal Code will continue to outlaw abortion and euthanasia as punishable acts. Duncan told MPs that he was ready with draft ordinances to allow these operations "under strict medical and governmental review." He called on Parliament to indicate how it wanted to proceed.
 
MP Ruth Douglass (United People's party) acknowledged that abortion is "rampant" in the community, but queried what control would used to punish people performing abortions. She called for a closed door session on the matter.
 
MP Jules James (UP) agreed with Dr. Douglass that there is no control on how abortions are carried out or how to charter the execution of the operation. One suggestion was to possibly have "a centralised location" where abortions are conducted under strict regulations and if preformed anywhere else would then be punishable by law.
 
Duncan said he concurred that there's no proper mechanism in place to deal with these "crimes."
 
MP Marlin said the regulation of abortion and euthanasia would require a "very, very, very long discussion" in the community even before it reaches Parliament.
 
Not wanting to "drop a hot apple in parliament's lap," Duncan said talks on this would continue with the ministry of public health and public opinions will also be gained. He intends to deal with this "expeditiously."
 
Prostitution, bail and tourist
 
The regulation of prostitution is also under review. Duncan said the Justice Ministry has set up a committee "to supervise prostitution." That committee is made up of immigration and public health personnel. An oversight committee will be launched when the Penal Code is passed.
 
The possibilities of bail for suspects as well as people on conditional release (e.g. electronic monitoring) will soon be revived. Duncan said after queries by Dr. Douglass in a previous meeting on the Penal Code, he did some research that revealed that bail has been used in the kingdom since the middle ages, but has "fallen out of use." He has since given instruction to attorney general to pursue the issue of bail.
 
Duncan again reiterated his position about a stiffer punishment for crimes against tourists. This, he said was "not putting a tourist above anyone ... We spend a lot of money saying what a nice place this is. The whole society is affected because our economy is being threatened [by crimes against visitors]."
 
While the Penal code already deals with the act of pawning items, the minister said to carry out the motion to regulate pawn shops as proposed by MP Romain Laville and passed by Parliament in March, would require the synchronization of the Penal and Civil codes as well as the granting of licences by the Ministry of Economic Affairs. This will be followed up on.
 
Parliament has been combing over the Penal Code for almost a year now. A series of hearings were held to get feedback from, among others the Bar Association, about the pending changes. The draft code has been under discussion since the days of the Netherlands Antilles and was one of several draft laws passed on to St. Maarten to complete when it became country within the kingdom.

(The Daily Herald)

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