The latest United States State Department report on human rights in Guyana has found that alleged government corruption, including among police officials, and laws that discriminate against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons were the most significant human rights problems.
The 2016 US State Department report on Human Rights Practices in Guyana, which was released last Friday, also mentioned the killing of robbery suspect Ryan Vaux by police and the initial barring of a transgender woman from a court by a local magistrate because of the way she was dressed. Magistrate Dylon Bess barred Petronella Trotman from entering the court on several occasions because of the way she was dressed, which resulted in her not being able to offer evidence against a man who was charged with assaulting her.
The matter was dismissed reportedly for the lack of evidence at a closed door session, with only the magistrate, court officials and the accused allowed in the courtroom. Since the decision last week, several persons, including former Speaker Ralph Ramkarran, have criticized the magistrate’s action.
The report said that while in January of 2016 President David Granger announced that he was prepared to treat the rights of LGBTI individuals as human rights, the government did very little after the announcement to advance legislative protection for LGBTI persons.
According to the annual report, which looks at human rights conditions in countries throughout the world, the law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. “There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year, and administration officials responded to the reports. There remained a widespread public perception of corruption involving officials at all levels, including the police and the judiciary,” it noted.
The report mentioned the investigation of former Ministry of the Presidency Permanent Secretary Omar Shariff, who had been reported by one section of the media as having more than 10 billion Guyanese dollars (GYD) (US$500 million) in his personal bank accounts. “Media reports suggested the money was accumulated through money laundering and tax evasion dealings spanning numerous years. Shariff was placed on annual leave and remained off the job. As of November there were no reports that a legal case had been made against Shariff.”
Shariff is now before the court with his wife for refusing to hand over documents to officials of the Special Organized Crime Unit (SOCU). He had previously denied the report alleging that he had billions in his bank accounts.
The report noted that although the law requires public officials to declare their assets to an integrity commission, the commission had not been constituted by year’s end. It pointed out that the law sets out both criminal and administrative sanctions for nondisclosure and if a person fails to file a declaration, that fact can be published in the daily newspapers and the Official Gazette. “Failure to comply with the law can lead to a summary conviction, fines, and imprisonment for six to 12 months. If property is not disclosed as required, the magistrate convicting the defendant must order the defendant to make a full disclosure within a set time. No such publication or convictions occurred during the year,” the report pointed out.
The report also mentioned a reported directive given to the Guyana Chronicle that all headlines must be scrutinized before the paper goes to press. This was strenuously denied by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo last year after it was also stated in that report.
Did not enjoy impunity
Other human rights problems, the report said, included harsh and potentially life-threatening prison conditions, lengthy pretrial detention, and trafficking in persons.
However, the report said government officials did not enjoy impunity even as there were independent and transparent procedures for handling allegations of abuses by security forces.
“There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year,” the report said, while citing the killing of Vaux in May of last year.
Vaux, 36, of Lot 80 Norton Street, Lodge, Georgetown, was shot once in his back around 1.10 am on May 9 last after he allegedly attempted to open fire at the police in a bid to escape. He was taken to the Georgetown Public Hospital (GPH), where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
The office of the Director Public Prosecutions (DPP) has since advised that an inquest be held into the circumstances of his death.
The report noted that there were reports of corruption in the police force, while charges were brought against police officers for various crimes, including robbery, simple larceny, bribery, and indecent assault. Other charges were also brought against lawmen for unnecessary use of force, unlawful arrest, and neglect of duties.
Reports alleging mistreatment of inmates by prison officials as well as allegations of police abuse of suspects and detainees, even though the country’s laws prohibits this, were also highlighted.
“Prison and jail conditions, particularly in police holding cells, were harsh and potentially life threatening due to gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care,” the report stated.
The issue of lengthy pretrial detention was mentioned in the report, which indicated that it remained a problem, due primarily to judicial inefficiency, staff shortages, and cumbersome legal procedures. The average length of pretrial detention was three years for those awaiting trial at a magistrate’s court or in the High Court.
It said that the law provides for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence.
“Delays and inefficiencies undermined judicial due process. Shortages of trained court personnel, postponements at the request of the defence or prosecution, occasional allegations of bribery, poor tracking of cases, and police sluggishness in preparing cases for trial caused delays,” the report said.
Women and children
On the matter of women and children, the report stated that as of September last year, authorities received 204 reports of rape and charged 36 persons. There was a large court backlog of cases alleging rape.
It noted that domestic violence and violence against women, including spousal abuse, was widespread. Police received 2,170 reports of domestic violence, and 1,131 persons were charged. According to the report, victims frequently were unwilling to press charges due to a lack of confidence in obtaining a remedy through the courts. Some preferred to reach a pecuniary settlement out of court. It said there were reports of police accepting bribes from perpetrators and other reports of magistrates applying inadequate sentences after conviction.
As it relates to child abuse, the report indicated that there were frequent reports of physical and sexual abuse of children, which was described as a “widespread and serious problem.” Up to July last year, there were 223 cases of child abuse reported to the authorities, but law enforcement officials and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) believed that the vast majority of child rape and criminal child abuse cases were not reported. “As with cases of domestic abuse, NGOs alleged that some police officers and magistrates could be bribed to make cases of child abuse ‘go away,’” the report said.