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Friday 23 March 2018

A man’s freedom

ON FRIDAY, the day the House of Representatives convened for one of its regular bachannalian sittings, the Court of Appeal delivered a ruling in a deeply disturbing case which had serious implications for our democracy.

The experience of Selwyn Dillon is an indictment against our criminal justice system as well as the bodies that are charged with overseeing it, including the legislature. It also tells us a lot about our society’s treatment of people with mental illness. Dillon was charged with the murder of his mother in 1981. He was found guilty but insane at the San Fernando Assizes in May 1988 and ordered to be detained at the President’s Pleasure at St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital. However, for unclear reasons, he was sent to Carrera Island Prison. He never received treatment for 15 years while incarcerated.

Eventually, Dillon’s mental illness subsided but he was not released. This, notwithstanding a report from Dr Iqbal Ghany, dated February 26, 2004, which concluded, “this man has not shown any formal mental illness for several years and in my opinion is fit to be released. He will not be a danger to the public.” The Court of Appeal on Friday upheld an award of $2.5 million in damages for wrongful detention. Because of interest, the State will now have to pay $5 million for its administrative malfeasance.

It was Noam Chomsky, American social critic and historian, who once remarked, “Democracy and Freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival.” How can we as a society pretend to a democracy when the very values that are meant to underpin such a democracy can be found by our Supreme court to be so flagrantly violated? And by the State, too?

We cannot imagine the horror endured by Dillon. He will never get the lost years of his life back, even with his award of millions. It is imperative that the Judiciary, the Prisons Service and the Ministry of the Attorney General review this case and come up with solutions to ensure something like this never happens again. Further, it is essential that the State do what it can to raise awareness of mental health issues, eradicate stigma, and provide support services at the community level. This should also include intervention within educational spaces, from the primary school to the tertiary level.

It is a tragedy that the death of Dillon’s mother happened in the first place. Could that have been avoided? We may never know what forms of medical intervention could have helped. But it is clear the State could have done better to prevent this man from being gratuitously deprived of his liberty.


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