A domestic violence unit

On Tuesday, January 9, 2018 Justice Navindra Singh handed down a sentence of 16 years imprisonment to Sylvester Bristol, called ‘Rambo,’ for the killing of female taxi driver Savitri Gangadeen Parma, after Bristol pleaded guilty to the lesser count of manslaughter even though originally charged with the capital offence of murder.

This case bears mention since, from the outset, the identity of the perpetrator was never really in doubt as physical evidence gathered shortly after placed him at the scene of the heinous crime. Also in 2014, we reported that a senior police officer had revealed that Bristol had confessed to the crime and had not incriminated anyone else in it.

Violence against women in its various guises, including sexual and domestic violence, seems to be at an all-time high in Guyana, without showing any signs of diminishing. And just a year ago, while speaking specifically about domestic violence, we made a point which bears repeating in its entirety, to wit that the “intolerable gap between the committing of a domestic violence crime and the judgment arising out of the process of prosecution within the criminal justice system, has the effect of reducing the deterrent factor of the punishment, and protracting the suffering of the victims, making psychological closure to the victims and the society as a whole harder to achieve.”

Although not a domestic violence case, this case of sexual violence and murder committed by Bristol was not expedited through the criminal justice system although it had all the appearances of an ‘open and shut’ case as physical evidence and his own words identified him as the undoubted perpetrator. The well-known axiom that justice must not only be done but must appear to be done is voided when cases, particularly the more straightforward ones, are protracted and reach a conclusion too many years after the crime has been committed.

The suffering families are forced to endure in those agonising intervening years while seeking some form of closure has the impact of a double suffering being foisted on them. For the perpetrator, being held on remand must also have a different psychological effect to serving a sentence for a crime committed. In Bristol’s case, he might have time already served deducted from his sentence and this must add more anguish to the victim’s families who would have unfairly suffered through the nearly four year wait for justice to be served.

Despite the constant stream of activism denouncing violence against the women in our society the body count continues to pile up even as those in authority offer platitudes but no seemingly effective solutions. The year 2017 has been notable for having a high number of incidents of overall violence against women, many of which were fatal. Yet, while the brutal murders of 22-year-old Kescia Branche and 18-year-old Ranella Benfield are still fresh in the national psyche, we learn of an allegedly abusive ex-partner of a 27-year-old schoolteacher brazenly storming into a classroom filled with children, to accost and threaten the teacher, forcibly snatching her cell phone from her possession before escaping.

Obviously there appears to be no deterrent factor in play as it relates to the issue of violence against women in Guyana. If anything, the reverse seems more likely to be true. Public awareness campaigns seeking to bring an end or at least a sharp reduction in the number of instances of violence against women also do not seem to be having quite the desired effect. Also, even criminal punishment as a deterrent fails when that punishment comes four years after the crime has been committed.

This is not to make light of the task facing the authorities in arresting the high incidence of violence against women on the whole. Domestic violence in many cases stems from insecurity, suspicion, and alcohol and drug addiction and other anti-social behaviour. Extreme cases of domestic violence can also result in murder with the perpetrator often seeking to also take their own life.

This calls into question whether the fear of punishment by the state is felt by someone who is willing to take their own life after committing a murder. However, a person’s willingness to take their own life in the heat of the commission of a crime usually dissipates with the passage of time. If the state is able to efficiently and effectively apprehend, prosecute and punish perpetrators of domestic violence and violence against women (including sexual violence) such that a nexus is formed in the public psyche between the crime and the punishment, then this is likely to influence an overall reduction in violence towards women.

The case has been made before for police officers to be specially trained to receive reports and investigate cases of violence against women (including domestic violence), but maybe the time has come for the creation of a special unit for such tasks. A Domestic Violence Unit (however named) which has the scope to investigate all cases of violence against women can benefit from specialised international training and bring much needed focus on eradicating a problem that is tearing at the fabric of our society.

If the creation of such a unit of the Guyana Police Force is actualised, then inter-agency rules of procedure would link it with welfare agencies of the Ministry of Social Protection and give it access to a significant database of cases. Pairing the establishment of such a unit with a special court to expedite cases prepared by competent, trained lawyers attached either directly to the GPF or the Ministry of Social Protection will improve efficiency throughout the entire process, from the time a report is made to the execution of justice by the state.

Prevention is indeed better than the cure, but when prevention fails the only effective recourse remains a good dose of strong medicine, and we believe that this is badly needed in 2018.

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