Problematic billion dollar forensic lab still stalled

The billion dollar Guyana Forensic Science Labora-tory which opened a year ago at Turkeyen “has its problems” and the aim now is ensuring that it becomes a working facility, Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan says.

Guyana Police Force’s Forensic laboratory
Guyana Police Force’s Forensic laboratory

In a recent interview with Stabroek News, Ramjattan said that space for DNA testing equipment and well trained personnel are on the list for addition to the lab. The facility, built under the previous PPP/C administration, was enveloped in controversy since it was officially commissioned in July last year and there has been a complete media blackout on the work being conducted behind its walls.

Khemraj Ramjattan
Khemraj Ramjattan

Ramjattan had told Stabroek News that his impression was that the lab has stalled and the aim now is ensuring that it becomes a working facility. At the time of that interview, he had pointed to a thick file on the Inter-American Development Bank-funded lab which was on his desk and said that he want to closely peruse it.

Updating Stabroek News last Friday, the minister acknowledged that there were problems with the facility. He singled out DNA testing saying that to get that aspect “up and running,” there were some problems in relation to the space for the equipment. He said too that government was informed by experts that before any evidence from such equipment can be utilized in a court of law, “we have to graduate into a certain standard through institutional strengthening and personnel strengthening for purposes of the specimens and the exhibits being preserved and having the integrity so that when it goes to court there will be no falsifications and that they lead to no wrongful acquittals or wrongful convictions.”

According to Ramjattan, the aspect of the facility that will be dealing with DNA testing “is about the highest of the ends in relation to investigative methods and procedures.”

When word of the construction of the lab first hit the press, it was assumed that DNA testing would have been given priority, particularly since the country has been spending large sums of money to send samples to overseas labs which have turned out to be, more often than not, unreliable. A prime example was the Lindo Creek massacre samples which were sent to a lab in Jamaica. It took years before the results were returned. The Guyana Police Force with regards to criminal investigations has utilized labs in Brazil, Trinidad and Barbados.

Former Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee has said that the Office of the President (now Ministry of Presidency) had asked that steps be taken to facilitate DNA testing and a decision was taken to look at that after the commissioning of the lab. It was subsequently revealed that the IDB was approached for help in funding such a venture.

The Americans were approached for funding too. However, Chargé d’Affaires at the US embassy here, Bryan Hunt had told Stabroek News in an interview earlier this year in relation to the lab that there is a need to get the base right and bring the $1 billion lab up to international standards. Asked about assistance the US can offer in terms of DNA analysis, Hunt had said that a number of experts have taken a look at the forensics lab and while “at some point in the future it would be a wonderful thing for Guyana to have a DNA capability, we first have to get the base right, we first have to get those initial components of a forensics laboratory operating with qualified personnel.”

“Right now your forensic laboratory is not considering adding an immediate DNA capacity,” he had said. “DNA would be a significant step up from where the current capacity is. We have to get the current capacity that was built functioning correctly with the qualified personnel to administer that before we take the next step upwards.”

During his first meeting with Ramjattan, Commis-sioner of Police Seelall Persaud had expressed some concerns about the facility and when asked about this, the minister explained that those concerns revolved around strengthening the integrity of the facility, “…him saying that we have to get more experienced people, well-trained people to ensure that they reach the high quality that is going to sustain the integrity of an institution,” he related.

Previously, Ramjattan had said that Persaud had expressed “disappointment with what has happened.” The minister noted that he too was very disappointed adding that he was “now hearing what might be the source of the disappointment. I do not want that to be made public at this stage but effectively we are working to ensure what can make that lab go on and work…I don’t know if it is really doing any work right now.”

Stabroek News was informed that there is a staff shortage at the facility and when asked, Ramjattan said that he was unaware of this. He added that he is yet to embark on an official visit and tour of the facility. He said that apart from one person whom he spoke with, he does not know the other members of the staff.

One source had said earlier this year that some of the staff have left for various reasons. This newspaper was unable to ascertain the precise number but was told that the staffing size is less than last July. Based on advertisements placed in the daily newspapers, there should be at least 14 members on staff.

If one passes the facility anytime during the day, there are no signs of activity there. Access to the compound is restricted and the electronic gate is manned by security guards. Stabroek News has never been able to make contact with the Director of the facility as the directive has always been to make contact with the ministry.

One of the primary aims of the lab is to use scientific techniques that the country had never seen before in solving crimes. At one time, there was talk of the police lab being merged with the new facility. It is unclear whether this is still on the cards. For the time being, the police lab and its ranks remain at police headquarters Eve Leary where that facility is located.

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