Covering events from January - December 2003
In a joint communiqué on 6 May, President Jagdeo and Robert Corbin, Leader of the Opposition and head of the People’s National Congress/Reform party (PNC/R), pledged to continue “constructive engagement” and agreed various parliamentary and constitutional reforms. These reforms included the establishment of a Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) to inquire into, among other things, the operations of the Guyana Police Force; legislation to strengthen human rights; the creation of an Ethnic Relations Commission; and the appointment of members to new Constitutional Committees on Human Rights, Women and Gender Equity, Children, and Indigenous Affairs. The communiqué signalled the reopening of talks between the two leaders, which had been suspended in March 2002. Following the signing of the communiqué, PNC/R members returned to the National Assembly for the first time since March 2002 and Parliament resumed operations.
There were continued reports of high levels of violent crime, although no official statistics were published. At least nine police officers were killed. Joint police-army anti-crime operations continued in some areas. In May the President attributed the crime rise to the drug and gun trade, the return of people deported from other countries, illegal migration and politically motivated interests.
Racial and ethnic tension
In July the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance visited Guyana. In an interim report to the UN General Assembly in August, he observed that ethnic polarization between Guyanese of African and Indian descent, reflected in the composition of political parties, greatly affected the structure of state mechanisms and perpetuated economic and social underdevelopment. He expressed hope that the joint communiqué by the President and the Leader of the Opposition reflected political commitment towards finding democratic and sustainable responses to such problems. His full report was due in January 2004.
In May and July, members of the Ethnic Relations Commission were appointed. The Commission’s task was to investigate and address complaints of racial discrimination, and promote equal access to public services. Appeals against its decisions could be made to the Ethnic Relations Tribunal but this had not started work by the end of the year.
Death sentences for murder were imposed by the courts. At the end of 2003 there were at least 20 people on death row. There were no executions. The government did not respond to AI’s request to be informed of the number of death sentences imposed following the introduction of “anti-terrorism” legislation in 2002. Amendments to the Criminal Law Offences Act had expanded the scope of the death penalty to include “terrorist acts” and threatened freedom of expression and association.
In July, journalist Mark Benschop was committed to stand trial for treason with political activist Phillip Bynoe, who remained unapprehended. They were charged with “form[ing] an intention to overthrow the lawfully elected Government of Guyana by force” and other conspiracy charges. The charges related to an attack on the Presidential Palace following a demonstration in July 2002. Both faced a death sentence if convicted. In September the Director of Prisons denied reports that Mark Benschop was being ill-treated in prison or that he was on hunger strike. The trial was due to start in October but had not begun by the end of the year.
Violations by law enforcement officials
In July the DFC started public hearings into the operations of the Guyana Police Force. The DFC was to look at a wide range of issues including pay, training, structures, the need for a police force that was ethnically balanced, and complaints relating to human rights. Between August and November it received over 100 submissions from government officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), members of the public and others. Its preliminary report to the National Assembly in November stated that the police needed “urgent, serious and wide-ranging reform”. In addressing the problem of extrajudicial executions the DFC made several recommendations. These included the establishment of a dedicated or distinctly identifiable Coroner’s Court to reduce the backlog of inquests and inquiries into police killings; the provision to coroners of independent investigative resources; greater independence in the investigation of complaints against the police; and clearer terms of reference and lines of command for specialist units likely to confront armed and dangerous criminals.
AI submitted its concerns and recommendations on police reform to the DFC. While welcoming the DFC’s preliminary conclusions and recommendations, AI remained concerned at the limited extent to which its report drew on international human rights standards.
A number of police officers were charged with murder but none was convicted. There were at least 29 fatal shootings by the police, some of which appeared to be extrajudicial executions, and further reports of the unlawful use of force. Torture and ill-treatment was alleged in some cases. Conditions in police lock-ups reportedly remained severe.
- There were reports of ill-treatment during security force operations in Buxton, East Coast Demerara, in January. The incident prompted a meeting between the Commissioner of Police and the Leader of the Opposition in January.
- In March, two police officers were charged with the murder of unarmed Yohance Douglas, aged 17. On 1 March armed police fired, reportedly without provocation, on a car in which he was travelling, killing him and wounding other passengers. The killing led to a public outcry. A pathologist who observed the autopsy on behalf of AI concluded that Yohance Douglas was shot from behind and that his death was caused by a haemorrhage resulting from a gunshot wound. None of the surviving car passengers was charged with any crime. The preliminary inquiry had not been completed by the end of 2003.
- In September, a police officer and another man were charged with the murder of Albert Hopkinson, aged 26. The police reported that he was found unconscious in a cell at a Mabaruma police station. Eyewitnesses alleged that he was beaten after his arrest on 2 September. An autopsy reportedly revealed death from strangulation, a fractured skull and other injuries.
- In November jurors unanimously returned a verdict of police criminal liability for the death of Mohammed Shafeek, who died in Brickdam police station on 3 September 2000. Eyewitnesses said that he was denied medical attention after being injured by police officers.
- In November a police officer was charged with manslaughter in connection with the fatal shooting on 25 June of Michael Clarke, allegedly while he was trying to escape an escort during a prisoner transfer. The trial had not taken place by the end of the year.
Conditions in detention
Conditions in detention remained harsh and amounted in some cases to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Severe overcrowding was aggravated by a substantial population of prisoners on remand, many of them detained for excessive periods, often for several years. However, local human rights activists reported a reduction in the prison population of Central Prison from 1,000 to 600.
Severe delays in hearing criminal cases were also reported. In October, 10 prisoners brought a legal action against the authorities, challenging the decision to bring Mark Benschop to trial within three months of committal when they had been awaiting trial for years.
Violence against women
In November, 41 NGOs, including women’s rights groups, launched a three-month awareness campaign to eliminate violence against women, in conjunction with the governmental Women’s Affairs Bureau.
Access to health care
Official figures released in 2003 showed that 1,500 of around 20,000 women who gave birth in Guyana in 2002 were HIV positive. In October a Memorandum of Understanding on HIV/AIDS education in the workplace was signed between the Ministry of Labour and the International Labour Organization.