Potentially unlawful killings by police, mistreatment of suspects and detainees by the security forces, poor prison and jail conditions and lengthy pretrial detention were among the most significant abuses of human rights in Guyana during last year.
The United States Department of State Human Rights Country Report for 2008, submitted to the US Congress yesterday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also cites government corruption, and sexual and domestic violence against women and children as other rights abuses occurring in Guyana. However, it said, despite these problems “the government generally respected the human rights of its citizens”.
For instance, the report said there were no reports that the government or its agents committed any politically motivated killings. However, it noted that the Guyana Human Rights Association (GHRA) and the media had asserted that both the Guyana Police Force (GPF) and the Guyana Prison Service committed unlawful killings. It pointed out that the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) received eight complaints of unlawful killings in 2008, though in most cases the police reportedly shot the victims while attempting to make an arrest or while a crime was being committed. The report noted that there were nine such complaints made for the previous year.
The report noted that the “Constitution broadly defines justifiable use of lethal force”, adding that on July 3, prison officials allegedly beat and tortured inmate Edwin Niles, who later died from his injuries and that two senior prison officials — Kurt Corbin and Gladwin Samuels – had since been charged with manslaughter in Niles’s death.
The report also referred to the July 26, death of prison inmate Nolan Noble from blunt force trauma to the head in circumstances that remained unclear and the October 20, death of police detainee James Nelson, who had been beaten. The PCA has called for an inquest in the latter case.
The report noted that the law prohibits torture, but there were numerous allegations that prison inmates were tortured as well as of police abuse of suspects and detainees.
It cited the December 2007 physical abuse of two soldiers during an interrogation for which the Guyana Defence Force had disciplined officers noting that it did not identify the individuals or the penalties imposed. The GDF had also submitted a report to the Defence Board, which government had promised to make public but later refused to do so.
The State Department report also pointed to allegations made by three civilians in 2007 that they also were victims of torture carried out by GDF officers, noting that the government did not investigate these.
During the year, the report said, the PCA also received 29 complaints of unlawful arrest and 15 complaints of unnecessary use of violence.
Prisons and jails
Prison and jail conditions were poor and deteriorating, particularly in police holding cells, the State Department report said. It added that capacity and resource constraints were a problem, citing a Guyana Prison Service report that there were 1,100 prisoners in Georgetown’s Camp Street Prison, which was designed to hold 610 inmates. It noted that some 60% of the detainees there were on remand, pointing to the backlog in court trials.
Conditions in the country’s four smaller prisons were also reportedly poor, the report said, noting that while some prison officers received basic medical training, no doctor regularly visited the prisons.
The GHRA provides basic human rights training for all new prison officers, the report said, but there is no reinforcement beyond this.
Meanwhile, it said that sanitary and medical conditions in police holding facilities were, overall, worse than those in the prisons. The report said some jails were bare, overcrowded, and damp; few had beds, washbasins, furniture, or utensils and meals were normally inadequate forcing friends and relatives to take meals and water for detainees. And it added that though these jails were intended to serve only as pretrial holding areas, some suspects were detained there as long as two years.
With regard to juvenile offenders, the report said that those aged 16 and older were held with the adult prison population, while those aged 15 and younger were sent to the New Opportunity Corps (NOC). However, there are problems at this juvenile correctional centre including lax security and understaffing and the mixing of runaways with minors who had committed crimes, with the result being that some became involved in more serious criminal activity.
For female offenders aged 16 and over and women awaiting trial are held in the same facilities as men and because of inadequate facilities, juvenile female pretrial detainees are sometimes held with adult female pretrial detainees.
The government did not permit monitoring of prison conditions by either independent bodies or by members of Parliament, and turned down requests for monitoring visits from the Parliamentary opposition and from a diplomatic mission, the report said. The government did not provide a reason for the refusals, other than “security concerns”.
And while rehabilitation programmes focused on vocational training and education, they did not adequately address the needs of prisoners with substance abuse problems.
Lengthy pre-trial detention, due primarily to judicial inefficiency, staff shortages, and cumbersome legal procedures, remained a problem in Guyana, the State Department report said. It added that the average length of pre-trial detention was four months for those awaiting trial at magistrate’s courts and 13 months for those awaiting trial at the High Court.
In addition, although the law provides criminal detainees prompt access to a lawyer of their choice and to family members, in practice these rights were not fully respected. The report said police routinely required permission from the senior investigating officer, who was seldom on the premises, before permitting counsel access to a client. There were also reports that senior officers refused to grant prompt access to prisoners. However, bail was generally available except in capital offences and narcotics trafficking cases.
Delays, inefficiencies, and corruption in the magistrate-court system affected the ability of citizens to seek timely remedy in civil matters, the report said and there was a large backlog of civil cases.
There were also shortages of trained court personnel and magistrates, inadequate resources, postponements at the request of the defence or prosecution, occasional allegations of bribery, poor tracking of cases, and the slowness of police in preparing cases for trial, the report said.
Up to the time the report was drafted around September-October, there were nine sitting High Court justices, with three vacancies. It noted that in April, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) had made recommendations to President Bharrat Jagdeo for filling the vacant seats, but the President had not taken any action. All four seats on the Court of Appeal also remained vacant and the chief justice and the chancellor of the judiciary were serving in acting capacities.
The report said that while the government generally did not detain persons on political grounds, there was widespread reporting that the imprisonment on March 5 of former GDF officer Oliver Hinckson, and his subsequent indictment for sedition, was politically motivated. Hinckson was granted bail in October and his trial is ongoing.
And while arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence was prohibited by law, and law enforcement officials generally respected these prohibitions, there were reports that police officers searched homes without warrants, particularly in the village of Buxton and in neighbourhoods where narcotics trafficking was suspected.
Corruption and transparency
The State Department referred to the World Bank’s worldwide governance indicators, which reflected that government corruption was a serious problem in Guyana.
It noted that there was a widespread public perception of serious corruption in the government, including law enforcement and the judicial system and that low wage public servants were easy targets for bribery. While the law provides for criminal penalties for official corruption, it said, the government did not implement the law effectively.
Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws and are required to submit information about personal assets to the Integrity Commission, but compliance was uneven and the commission had no resources for enforcement or investigations.
There is no freedom of information act in Guyana, and the report noted that government officials were generally reluctant to provide public information without approval from senior administration officials.
It said a few domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases, but government officials were often uncooperative and unresponsive to their views. And when they did respond, it was generally to criticise. A case in point, the report said, was after accusations were made that GDF officers may have engaged in torture. A GDF press release criticized those “willfully seeking to vilify the officers of the GDF…and to destabilize and demoralize the GDF.”
The Constitution allows for a governmental human rights commission, but it remained nonfunctioning, and there was no human rights ombudsman within the government.
Violence against women and girls
Violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, was widespread and crossed racial and socioeconomic lines, the report said. Rape and incest, both illegal, were neither frequently reported nor prosecuted, it added, noting that spousal rape is not illegal and contributed to victims’ reluctance to report incidents. Where there were convictions in sexual, violence cases, the report said, the “established trend” seemed to be a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.
The law prohibits domestic violence, gives women the right to seek prompt protection, and allows victims to seek protection, occupation, or tenancy orders from a magistrate. Penalties for violation of protection orders include fines up to $10,000 (US$54) and 12 months’ imprisonment; however, this legislation frequently was not enforced.
The report quoted Help and Shelter as stating that magistrates and magistrate court staff lacked sensitivity to the problem of domestic violence and to their roles in ensuring implementation of the law. In addition not all police officers fully understood provisions of the law; some officers reportedly could not recognize the paper form on which a protection order is written.
There seemed to be a perception that some police officers and magistrates could be bribed to make cases of domestic violence and child abuse “go away.” The report noted that cases in which the alleged victim or victim’s family agreed to drop the case in exchange for a monetary payment out of court were not prosecuted.
Meanwhile, although reports of sexual harassment were common, the State Department said, there were no prosecutions for sexual harassment under the Prevention of Discrimination Act, and charges of sexual harassment were often settled out of court.
The law also prohibits discrimination based on gender, but there was no legal protection against such discrimination in the workplace. Although women constituted a significant proportion of the workforce, it said, there were credible reports that they were not equally treated and faced disadvantages in promotion. Job vacancy notices routinely specified that the employer sought only male or only female applicants.