Friday, September 10, 2004

Coup convicts ride out storm in prison

                                                                                               Coard puts on his glasses amid what
                                                                                               remains of the Richmond Hill Prison.

Scores of other inmates escaped from damaged building

ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada (AP) -- Scores of inmates climbed out of Grenada's crumbling 17th century prison when howling winds tore away the roof and parts of the walls. But former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard stayed put, along with 15 others convicted of killings in the 1983 palace coup that led the United States to invade.

"I'm only leaving here when my name is cleared and I get a court order," Coard told The Associated Press on Friday, shuffling through the prison yard in sandals while other inmates cleaned up scraps of metal, trash and other debris strewn about by the hurricane.

He and other former politicians and soldiers are awaiting appeals before the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal and Britain's Privy Council, saying their life sentences were improperly handed down after the coup.

The coup plotters said they rode out the storm Tuesday in the hallways of Richmond Hill Prison, trying to persuade other inmates not to escape.

"The wind had a thousand different voices -- whistling, screaming, moaning, howling," said Dave Bartholomey, 48, a former party leader among the convicts.

Coard and the others alternated sitting and standing as the storm struck, some later saying they told jokes to mask their fear. "You heard sounds like explosions as the roofs went flying," said former Lt. Col. Ewart Layne, 46. "It was mayhem."

Layne said a roof lifted off a house on a nearby hill and slammed into the prison.

The prison's corrugated tin roof peeled back and went flying, and concrete walls built in recent years crumbled atop the solid stone fortifications. Coard said some inmates balanced on a wooden beam to reach the broken wall after the storm passed.

"We were trying to persuade prisoners to stay put, but it was very difficult," said Selwyn Strachan, 56, a former labor minister. "We have stayed put completely."

About 150 of the prison's 325 inmates fled after the storm, said Wesley Beggs, the prison's acting superintendent. Many have since returned, though as many as 75 remain at large, he said.

He said for the most part, "they just wanted to make sure their families are OK." Troops from Trinidad and Antigua patrolled on Friday, trying to prevent looting.

Prison guards escorted four of the coup prisoners to check on their relatives and later returned, he said. Four others convicted of roles in the coup waited outside the prison for guards to accompany them on similar outings.

"My sister and her family, their whole roof has been blown off," said Layne, holding a portable radio to hear reports.

The deadly hurricane left widespread destruction, tearing up homes, tossing sailboats on shore and snapping trees.

Below the hilltop prison overlooking St. George's harbor, hundreds of destroyed homes covered the hills.

Originally 17 people were sentenced for their role in the 1983 coup, but Coard's wife, Phyllis, was freed in 2000 to undergo cancer treatment and now lives in Kingston, Jamaica, where Ivan was nearing on Friday with ferocious winds.

"Naturally, I'm worried," said Coard, 60, whose hair is graying two decades after he was imprisoned.

Prosecutors said a power struggle prompted Coard to send soldiers and two other soldiers to kill Marxist leader Maurice Bishop, four Cabinet ministers and six supporters on October 19, 1983.

Six days after the killings, thousands of U.S. troops stormed the island on a mission that President Ronald Reagan said was aimed at restoring order, protecting hundreds of American medical students and preventing a buildup of Cuban military advisers and weapons.

Some details remain unclear, including the number of Grenadians killed and the whereabouts of Bishop's body. The U.S. government puts the death toll at 19 Americans, 45 Grenadians and 24 Cubans.

To this day some Grenadians complain of U.S. meddling in the trial that convicted the so-called "Grenada 17." Some defense witnesses were barred, and prosecutors and judges were paid with a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. government, according to Richard Hart, who briefly served as attorney general under Bishop.

Strachan said he and others laughed when they heard rumors that they had escaped.

"We are political prisoners and we are not interested in going out there for the sake of going out there," Strachan said. "We have a strong legal case before the court, and we are prepared to wait on that, as we have for the last 20 years."

The prisoners say they expect the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal will hear their appeal in November.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.