The law should reflect the public opinion of morality. The duty of the state including the government and the court is to ensure the protection of the public under the law. Many of the most elemental aspects of the protection of individual liberties in the interest of justice are reflected in our constitution. They only need to be expressed to be endorsed. No person shall be deprived of his life except in execution of a sentence of the court (Article 138). No person shall be subjected to torture (Article 141).
Growing attention has recently been directed to the fundamental right enshrined in Article 139: no person shall be deprived of his personal liberty save as may be authorized by law. Hand in glove with this is the right of a person not to be subjected to the search of his person or property or the entry by others on his premises except under authority of the law (Article 143).
Of course, the authority most likely to take away a person’s liberty or to subject him to search of his person or property is the Guyana Police Force. This is a necessary power given to the Force in specific circumstances in the interest of public order. There is however a growing sense among Guyanese who come into contact with members of the Police Force and face the possibility of arrest, imprisonment and search that their rights are being violated. There is also a critical lack of education among members of the public and, it seems, members of the Force, concerning in what circumstances such arrest, imprisonment and search occur under the authority of the law, and when they are unlawful.
Tepid efforts have been made by the authorities to address the issue of abuse. The Minister of Home Affairs some time ago was reported to have suggested that police ranks should not make arrests for minor traffic offences unless a more senior officer was present. The Attorney General more recently suggested that the constitutional amendment permitting imprisonment without charge for 72 hours may have been abused from time to time by members of the Police Force. On the other hand, the President saw nothing to apologize about for the arrest of the Muslim cleric who was taken by the police from his hotel room. Even less shrift was given to the two Guyanese men who visited him in the lock-ups and were promptly arrested themselves.
Road users in Guyana are all too familiar with the experience of being stopped on the road and taken to the station for minor offences and enduring ‘routine’ searches of their vehicles. I asked two laymen during the past week for their opinion when it was acceptable for the police to arrest a driver and to search his vehicle. After some hesitation, the first, a barber, suggested that, if a driver was caught in a traffic violation, he could properly be arrested. He then shrugged, and concluded that it is far easier to pay the usual $1,000 than to deal with the aggravation of a police encounter for a traffic violation. The second layman, more thoughtful, pointed out that there was a serious problem of drugs and unlawful weapons in Guyana, and perhaps it was for the greater good to ignore the niceties of fundamental rights and co-operate in the searches conducted by the police. He then also pointed out the irony that the criminals with guns and drugs were also the individuals who could afford protection and therefore were not at risk from ‘routine’ stops and searches by the police ranks.
I have deliberately waited one week from the publication of the AG’s statement to point out from newspaper reports alone how common reports are of cases of arrest, imprisonment and search.
Stabroek News Tuesday, July 12, 2011 page 9 – Police “acting on information” search a house in Enterprise and arrest two men and a woman when they found marijuana and a firearm in the house.
Stabroek News Wednesday July 13, 2011 page 14 – a man arrested on Saturday in connection with a fire at D’Urban Street was released on station bail on Monday. “Investigations are continuing.”
Stabroek News Thursday July 14, 2011 page 16 – a doctor “taken into police custody” on an allegation that he molested a girl.
Stabroek News Saturday July 16, 2011 page 9 – a truck driver is in police custody “assisting with investigations” when a pedestrian is run over and killed.
Stabroek News Sunday July17, 2011 page 11 – after unknown persons chopped pet dogs in a village, police sent a patrol and “brought in a few persons who were sitting on the seawall but subsequently released them.”
Over the course of the ensuing weeks, the Guyana Bar Association will publish a series of articles in the Sunday Stabroek outlining the power of arrest, detention and search conferred by the law on the Police Force, and the ramifications, both administrative and legal, of excesses by the authorities. At the end of the day, however, only public opinion can determine whether there will be a change or whether the status quo is acceptable.
Guyana Bar Association