Westford assures legal aid for student accused of Cuban’s murder

The Guyanese scholarship student, who allegedly murdered a man and slit a woman’s throat in Cuba, will be given legal representation and his future in the scholarship programme will hinge on the outcome of the court case, according to Public Service Minister Jennifer Westford.

The student, Shurlon Austin, of Hamilton Road, Pattensen, South Sophia, left Guyana in 2006 at the age of 24 and was scheduled to complete the Cuba-leg of his studies over the next few months. Thereafter, he would have returned to Guyana to complete his final year of studies before graduation.

Asked about Austin’s future in the scholarship programme, Westford yesterday said that it would depend on what happens with his case. She explained that it is too early to assess if the matter will go to trial or what the outcome would be.

Jennifer Westford

Westford added that legal representation is being worked out between the Guyana and Cuba governments. She assured that Austin will be given legal representation.

When quizzed about the length of time he has been in the lock-ups, the Minister opined that because Austin is not a Cuban, authorities there are taking their time to investigate the matter.

Asked how the young man is coping in prison, Westford replied “he is doing as fine as he can be under the circumstances.” She said that embassy officials in Cuba are being allowed to visit Austin but noted that the visits are not for discussions but rather to assess his needs.

She said that until now it is unclear why Austin allegedly committed the acts, while emphasising that she is still awaiting an official report on what occurred in Cuban two Friday nights ago.

Westford said that the woman wounded during the incident remains in a critical condition in hospital. She also dispelled rumours that she was in Cuba or was planning to visit to assess the situation. “Me being there wouldn’t make a difference,” she said, adding that the officials in Cuba are well-equipped to handle the situation.

Meanwhile, this newspaper was reliably informed that Guyanese officials in Cuba met with students on Wednesday. Those renting apartments were advised to return to the dormitory within two weeks. Many of the students, this newspaper was told, had moved out owing to the deplorable living conditions.

Reports are Austin might have allegedly committed the acts during an argument over the price of a watch. Sources had said that he went to a shop in Havana to buy a watch and while there he reportedly got into an argument with the owner of the store, which saw the man’s wife intervening.

A source said Austin stabbed the man at least 11 times before turning his knife on the woman. The woman sustained a wound to the throat and other parts of the body and is receiving treatment at a Havana hospital.

Meanwhile, a parent who has a child studying in Cuba told Stabroek News that students often succumb to the pressure of poor conditions and being away from relatives for many years. It was explained that the Guyana government only provides airfare to travel to Cuba when the scholarship starts and to return to Guyana when it has ended. If the student wants to return home during the scholarship period, she explained, parents have to foot the airfare.

The parent stressed that if students do not have support from parents, it affects them. She also said that scholarship students face many problems, including poor living conditions. She said that many students have moved out of the living quarters provided to escape conditions, such as the poor quality of food that is made available, and they would rent apartments at the expense of their relatives.

A woman who identified herself as Austin’s mother declined to speak with this newspaper, arguing that she was not in Cuba and that the truth about the situation could be twisted.

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