Police under pressure over alleged baton assault

-Cop in close arrest, Timehri ranks transferred

-probe intensifies two months after reported attack

Two months after an alleged horrific baton rape of Colwyn Harding by a cop, the police force and the Ministry of Home Affairs issued their first statement on the matter  yesterday pledging a full probe with the latter warning of “condign” action against anyone found culpable.

The police constable accused of the sexual assault has been placed under close arrest while several ranks have been removed from the Timehri Police Station to facilitate a probe into the case, which has prompted new calls for the Minister of Home Affairs and the Police Commissioner to be removed from office. Rape complainants are never identified by Stabroek News but the family of the complainant has decided to make the matter public.

Colwyn Harding
Colwyn Harding

Observers angry at the alleged assault of 23-year-old Harding say this may be a sign that persons are still being tortured while in police custody as the case has elicited comparisons to that of the teenaged boy whose genitals were set on fire in October, 2009 in the Leonora Police Station shortly after he was arrested in relation to a murder investigation.  Why the Harding matter has taken so long to be probed has also placed the police under great pressure.

A vigil, organised by Red Thread, was held yesterday outside the Georgetown Hospital to show support for Harding and his family, to speak out against police brutality and to demand justice. Others are planned, including one this afternoon outside the Public Buildings ahead of today’s sitting of the National Assembly.

The rank who allegedly forced the baton up Harding’s anus is a constable and up to press time last night he was under close arrest at Police Headquarters, Eve Leary. Two other constables, a community policing member and an inspector, have been accused of being present while the man was being badly beaten and ill-treated by the constable.

Days after Harding’s allegations were first made public, the Guyana Police Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs broke their silence on the case, with the former announcing that an “incomplete” investigation by acting ‘A’ Division Commander George Vyphuis, underway since last month, had been handed over by Police Commissioner Leroy Brumell to the force’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).

Sharon Harding (right) being sympathised with yesterday at a vigil outside the Georgetown Hospital over the alleged baton assault on her son.
Sharon Harding (right) being sympathised with yesterday at a vigil outside the Georgetown Hospital over the alleged baton assault on her son.

“…The policeman who has been accused of the alleged assault has been placed under close arrest and a number of other ranks stationed at the Timehri Police Station have been transferred to other Police locations,” the police force said in a statement issued yesterday afternoon, while adding that it would not condone unprofessional behaviour by its ranks.

“The Guyana Police Force wishes to emphatically state that unbecoming behaviour by members of the Force will not be tolerated and condign action will be taken against any rank found culpable of such action,” it further noted.

According to the police’s version, Harding was in police custody between November 15 and November 18, 2013, at the Timehri Police Station pending investigations into a report of break and enter and larceny. “During that period he committed the offences of Assaulting (a)  Peace Officer and Disorderly Behaviour for which he was charged and appeared in court on November 18, 2013”, police said, adding that Harding was placed on bail in the sum of $50,000 but he was unable to raise this sum and was remanded to prison. The matters are still before the court.

While the police did not state at which point the alleged sexual assault took place, this newspaper was told that it occurred on November 15, before Harding was taken to the police station.

Harding and his family have said that he was wrongfully arrested while at a cousin’s home at Timehri and one of the arresting ranks sodomised him. Harding said that in an attempt to stop him from screaming, the officer attempted to push a pair of panties down his throat which prompted him to bite the officer’s hand. As a result, he said he was subsequently charged with unlawful assault and disorderly behaviour.

His attorney, Nigel Hughes, has also said that Harding was physically assaulted by the officer accused of sodomising him during his detention at the Timehri Police Station. He added that he was told that all the events were done with the full knowledge of senior officers on duty.

Hughes yesterday posted on his Facebook page that he has since received a statement from a 17-year-old who claimed that he was an eyewitness to the beating of Harding at the Timehri Station. The teen, who is now an inmate of the Camp Street Prison, was held at the Timehri Police Station during the same period that Harding was there.

According to the written statement that the teen gave to Hughes, Harding’s feet were swollen and he was limping when he saw him at the police station on November 15 last. The teen said that when he asked about his condition, Harding said that the constable, who he named, and an inspector “had beaten him and pushed a baton up him”. He also recounted how Harding was again beaten at the station before being placed in a lock-up filled with human waste for the night. He was also in that cell.

The following morning, he said, he was moved to a clean cell nearby. The teen said that that night the shift changed and the constable was back on duty. The constable, the teen said, inflicted a beating on Harding in full view of a community police officer and a female constable. Although he blacked out, the beating continued, the teen told the attorney. He said that later a corporal came with a bag of ice and instructed him to put it on Harding. He said that when he awoke the next morning, Harding, who was in the same cell with him, could not move

The next day, he said, they were taken to court but there was a problem with Harding’s case jacket and he was told that he was going to be returned to the Timehri Police Station.

 

‘Changes’

 

Part of the vigil yesterday outside the GPHC
Part of the vigil yesterday outside the GPHC

According to the police, the force’s administration was first informed of the alleged assault by way of a text message from a female to the Commissioner of Police during December 2013. Subsequently, the investigation was consequently launched by the Divisional Commander of ‘A’ Division, under which the Timehri Police Station falls, but it noted that “this has been found to be incomplete.”

When contact earlier in the day, Police Commissioner Brumell had said that the police ranks that have been named would be transferred.

“Some changes will be made at the (Timehri) Station,” Brumell told Stabroek News. Brumell also recalled that in December a woman, later identified as Harding’s mother, Sharon, made contact with him and he immediately handed over the matter to Vyphuis. He said that he was uncertain how far the investigation would have gone but he has since taken over the matter and had instructed the OPR to investigate.

The Commissioner explained that while he was hearing the name of a particular rank as being responsible, other ranks have since been implicated. He said that in light of the allegation, the entire station should be transferred but based on what he said only those who have been implicated as being participants are being moved at this point.

Based on what Brumell said the force doesn’t believe that the interdiction of the ranks is necessary at this point as it is preferred that the investigation be first completed before any action is taken.

He also said that in the meantime, detectives are keeping abreast with Harding’s condition.

 

Deep concern

 

Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Ministry registered its “deep concern” over the report of the alleged sexual assault.

While noting that it was awaiting the submission of a report from the police, the ministry said in a statement that the allegation has again raised public interest as regards treatment of prisoners by junior police ranks who allegedly flout the police force’s Standing Orders and bring it into disrepute.

The ministry strongly condemned any such breaches by any member of the force. It argued that such breaches fly in the face of the efforts at the police reform and make a mockery of the hard work by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the force’s Strategic Management Department to successfully implement a strategic plan aimed at modernising and reforming the organisation.

The Ministry also said that it expects that “condign action will be taken by the Commissioner of Police against the rank(s) found culpable after a speedy, full and proper investigation is conducted into the allegations and legal advice sought from the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).”

 

Vigil

 

Several dozen persons braved the rains and stood peacefully with placards. Things got underway at 4 pm and ended at 6pm. Traffic slowed to a crawl as curious motorists stopped to find out what was happening. In addition to several rights activists, members of Red Thread, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), the Timehri Community Development Group, the Guyana Women Miners Organisation (GWMO) and the University of Guyana were present.

Harding’s mother was too emotional to speak with this newspaper. She said though that his condition remains the same. She had earlier visited her son, who is unable to move from his bed unaided and who was still under guard by a policeman posted nearby.

Charlene Wilkinson, a lecturer at the University of Guyana, told Stabroek News that police brutality seems to be ongoing and escalating. She stressed that they were out there to protest the brutal rape and torture of a young man. She said that when she first heard of the case, she was left in a state of shock, especially since Harding’s mother, who is a member of the People’s Parliament Movement, was well known to her. “I was stunned and shocked but knowing the nature of police, the current culture that is being bred from the top down, I am not really, really surprised,” Wilkinson said. She added that her immediate reaction was that the Guyanese people needed to “take our country back from these criminals” and she called for the case to be kept on the front burner.

Fellow activist Duane Edwards said that when he read the accounts of what allegedly transpired, “I think that we have reached a new low in Guyana because the very state apparatus that is responsible for the preservation of peace and the protection of its citizens…is engaged in sodomy and brutality against its citizens.” He said that it is incumbent on all conscious-minded citizens to come out and express their disgust at what has transpired.

Joy Marcus, member of the Red Thread Organisation, said that “we are angry at the treatment that was meted out to him by the people who swore to protect and to serve us.” She further said that this sort of behaviour cannot continue and that citizens cannot continue to treat such issues with silence. She added that the fact that the persons who are supposed to be protectors can commit such an act speaks volumes.

“We have to try to end this nonsense that is happening and I really ashamed about the Guyana Police Force,” she said, while calling for the resignation of the police commissioner.  “This thing happen since November. If we don’t bring it out into the public nothing would not have been done,” she stressed while pointing out that Harding is in shackles while the person who inflicted his injuries has been left to walk free. “Where is the justice in that?” she questioned while adding that the entire force has to take responsibility for what has occurred.

Head of the GWMO Simona Broomes pledged her organisation’s support for the initiative that is being undertaken. “We are here in solidarity. It is unbelievable to know that still these kinds of things are happening here and persons turning a blind eye to it. I would want to see justice prevail,” she said while pledging the support of both she and the organisation to Harding’s family to the end.

Broomes said that she has high expectations of the police commissioner and to look at the matter with a fine teeth comb. “I know that once he goes through it with a fine teeth comb then justice will be served,” she said, while noting that often times the facts “don’t really surface to the top. It settles to the bottom.”

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