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U.S. Department of State

Bahamas Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997.

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BAHAMAS

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is a constitutional, parliamentary democracy and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II, the nominal head of state, is represented by an appointed Governor General. Prime Minister Hubert A. Ingraham's Free National Movement (FNM) has controlled the Government and Parliament since August 1992. The judiciary is independent.

The police and the small Bahamas Defence Force answer to civilian authority and generally respect laws protecting human rights. However, there continue to be reports that police occasionally abuse detainees.

The economy depends primarily on tourism, which accounts for over two-thirds of the gross domestic product. Financial services, particularly offshore banking and trust management, are also a major source of revenue. While some citizens enjoy relatively high average income levels, there is considerable underemployment and poverty. The official unemployment rate is over 13 percent, but unofficial estimates range up to twice that figure.

Citizens enjoy a wide range of democratic freedoms and human rights. The principal human rights problems include reports of occasional police abuse of detainees, continuing harsh conditions at the only prison, delays in trials, violence and discrimination against women, and violence against children.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated killings.

In September a bank robber was shot and killed during an exchange of fire. Police officials denied responsibility for the shooting, and some evidence reportedly supports their contention. Investigations were not complete by year's end. In another case, a court acquitted the two police officers dismissed from the force and charged with murder in the 1995 death of a third officer.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture and other cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, but corporal punishment-- abolished in 1984--was reinstated in 1991.

In February police officers shot a citizen after a high-speed chase in Nassau. The victim was driving a car similar to one from which shots had been fired at police officers. The Government almost immediately offered a public apology to the victim and his family and made financial arrangements for his medical treatment and other compensation. The police claim that the use of deadly force was justified under the circumstances and did not discipline the officers involved.

Human rights monitors and members of the general public continued to express concern over instances of police abuse against criminal suspects. Many of the charges of abuse involved beatings in order to extract confessions. Police officials denied that there have been violations of defendants' rights. According to the officials, a defendant's rights are protected by the trial judge, who determines the admissibility of a defendant's statement as evidence at trial. The Police Complaints and Discipline Unit, which reports directly to senior police officials, is responsible for investigating allegations of police brutality.

Conditions at Fox Hill, the only prison, continue to improve, but remain harsh and overcrowded. The men's prison, originally built in 1953 to house about 600 inmates, holds over 1,200 prisoners. The women's prison population is around 30, considerably less than full capacity. Male prisoners are crowded into poorly ventilated cells that generally lack running water and adequate sanitation facilities. There are no separate facilities for inmates being held on remand, although some are eventually segregated in a medium security wing after being processed through maximum security. Prison officials estimate that about 13 percent of the incoming prisoner population is infected with the HIV virus. Most prisoners lack beds, many sleep on concrete floors, and most are locked in their cells 23 hours per day. Facilities for women are less severe and do have running water. Organizations providing aid, counseling services, and religious instruction have regular access to inmates.

The Government provided funds to enable prison officials to make improvements in prison facilities and to continue prisoner rehabilitation programs. Modern training facilities include new computers and personnel to train the officers and staff. The prison has installed a computer system for its records, with plans for future links with the courts as well as law enforcement entities. A new entrance facility and visitor center was completed, with equipment to screen visitors for contraband. As prisoners are moved into two planned new facilities, much-needed renovation is set for the maximum security unit.

Local and international human rights groups were able to visit the prison during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The authorities conduct arrests openly and, when required, obtain judicially issued warrants. Serious cases, including those of suspected narcotics or firearms offenses, do not require warrants where probable cause exists. Arrested persons appear before a magistrate within 48 hours (or by the next business day for cases arising on weekends and holidays) to hear the charges against them. They may hire an attorney of their choice. The Government does not provide legal representation except to destitute suspects charged with capital crimes. Police sometimes deviate from prescribed procedures, however, and act arbitrarily. The Government respects the right to a judicial determination of the legality of arrests.

Judges tend not to grant bail to foreign suspects, particularly on more serious offenses, since the authorities consider foreign offenders likely to flee if released on bail. Judges sometimes authorize cash bail for foreigners arrested on minor charges, but in practice, foreign suspects generally prefer to plead guilty and pay a fine rather than pursue their right to defend themselves, given possible delays in court cases and harsh conditions in the prison. There were complaints of excessive pretrial detention. In December Parliament amended the Bail Act to prohibit bail for repeat offenders and those accused of certain violent crimes.

The authorities detain illegal migrants, primarily Haitians and Cubans, at the Carmichael Road Detention Center until arrangements can be made for them to leave the country. Illegal migrants convicted of crimes other than immigration violations are held at the prison and remain there for weeks or months, pending deportation after serving their sentences, unless they can arrange private means for their repatriation. Security concerns again forced the authorities to transfer groups of Cuban detainees temporarily from the detention center to the prison. These detainees have all since been released or deported.

Exile is illegal and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The justice system derives from English common law. The judiciary, appointed by the Governor General on the advice, in most cases, of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, has always been independent. Magistrate's courts are the lowest level courts and only handle crimes with a maximum sentence of 5 years. Trial by jury is only available in the Supreme Court, which is the trial court that handles most major cases. Its decisions may be appealed to the the Court of Appeal, with the Privy Council in London being the final court of appeal.

Trials are fair and public; defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to appeal. The judicial system is plagued by a large backlog of cases. This situation improved somewhat over the year because of the efforts of the Government to introduce a case management system. The training of court reporters, completed in 1996, also helped to speed up trials. Despite these measures to improve efficiency in the courts, complaints persist of excessive pretrial detention and delayed justice for victims.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary entry, search, or seizure, and the Government generally respects these prohibitions in practice. The law usually requires a court order for entry into or search of a private residence, but a police inspector or more senior police official may authorize a search without a court order where probable cause of a weapons violation exists. Such an official may also authorize the search of a person (which extends to the vehicle in which the person is traveling) without a court order, should probable cause exist for drug possession.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Government respects the constitutional provision for the right of free expression, and the political opposition criticizes the Government freely and frequently. Three daily and several weekly newspapers, all privately owned, express a variety of views on issues of public interest, including varying degrees of criticism of the Government and its policies. Foreign newspapers and magazines are readily available.

There is a government-run radio station and three privately owned radio broadcasters. The country's sole television station, the state-owned Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas, presents a variety of views, although opposition politicians claim with some justification that their views do not receive as extensive coverage as those of the Government.

The Government does not restrict academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the rights to free assembly and association, and the authorities respect these rights in practice. The law permits private associations, but groups must obtain permits to hold public demonstrations. The authorities grant such permits almost without exception.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government provided first asylum to 47 persons (46 Cuban nationals and 1 Liberian) in 1996, based on recommendations by the UNHCR. There were no reports of forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

Although the repatriation agreement between the Bahamas and Haiti expired at the end of 1995, the Government continued to repatriate illegal Haitian immigrants based on the terms of the agreement. The Bahamas signed a repatriation agreement with the Government of Cuba in January, and since then the authorities successfully repatriated illegal Cuban immigrants.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage.

The Bahamas is a constitutional, parliamentary democracy with two major political parties and general elections at least every 5 years. An elected Prime Minister and Parliament govern. The political process is open to all elements of society, and citizens 18 years of age and older are eligible to register and vote; voting is by secret ballot. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in 1997. In the 1992 elections, slightly more than 92 percent of registered voters cast valid ballots. The two principal political parties are the ruling Free National Movement and the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). The PLP led the country for 6 years of internal self-government from 1967 to 1973, and held power from independence in 1973 until 1992.

The FNM holds 32 of 49 seats in the House of Assembly, and the PLP holds 17. Both the ruling party and the opposition name members to the upper house--the Senate--in compliance with constitutional guidelines. Although it does pass legislation, the Senate is primarily a deliberative body that serves as a public forum to discuss national problems and policies to address them.

The Parliament has four elected female members, including the deputy speaker of the House, and three appointed female Senators, including the government leader in the Senate. A woman serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Attorney General.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Individual human rights monitors and several local human rights groups, as well as representatives of international human rights organizations, operate freely, expressing their opinions and reporting their findings on alleged human rights violations without government restriction. The Government allows them broad access to institutions and individuals.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Government generally respects in practice the constitutional provisions for individual rights and freedoms regardless of race, place of origin, political opinion, creed, or sex. However, both the Constitution and the law discriminate against women in several respects.

Women

Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem, with many women seeking shelter at the private, but government-supported, crisis center in Nassau. The Government has established a nationwide toll-free hot line, with two trained volunteers on each of the inhabited islands on call to respond in the event of a crisis. The crisis center, with help from the Government, instituted a public awareness campaign to highlight the problems of abuse and domestic violence. The Domestic Court, which deals exclusively with family issues such as spousal abuse, maintenance payments, and legal separation, continued to receive a high volume of cases. The court can and does impose various legal constraints to protect women from abusive spouses or companions.

The Constitution discriminates against women by not providing them with the same right as men to transmit citizenship to their foreign-born spouses. Additionally, the law makes it easier for men with foreign spouses to confer citizenship on their children than for women with foreign spouses. Some inheritance laws also favor men over women. For example, when a person dies without a will, the estate passes to the oldest legitimate son, or in cases where there is no son, the closest legitimate male relative. Prominent women of all political persuasions continue to push for an amendment to the Constitution and related laws to redress this situation.

Women participate fully in society and are well represented in the business and professional sectors, as well as in the judiciary and the Government. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Attorney General, Janet Bostwick, also directs the Bahamian Bureau of Women's Affairs, which is within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Children

The Government places priority on maintaining adequate expenditures for child welfare and education. However, child abuse and neglect remain serious problems. The law requires that anyone having contact with a child they believe to be sexually abused must report their suspicion to the police. The same reporting requirement does not apply to cases of physical abuse, which nonetheless are high. The police refer reported cases of sexual and physical abuse to the Department of Social Services, which investigates them and can bring criminal charges against perpetrators. The Department may remove children from abusive situations if the court deems it necessary.

People with Disabilities

Although the 1973 National Building Code mandates certain accommodations for the physically disabled in new public buildings, the authorities rarely enforce this part of the code. The code fails to mandate accommodation in new private buildings, however, which often lack accessibility as well.

The Disability Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Social Development and National Insurance works with the Bahamas Council for Disability, an umbrella organization for groups offering services for the disabled, to provide a coordinated public and private sector approach to the needs of the disabled. A mix of government and private residential and nonresidential institutions provides a range of educational, training, and counseling services for both physically and mentally disabled adults and children. In January the Government opened a new training center, with emphasis on computer training, within a private residential institution. Graduates of the center were working within government and the private sector by the end of the year. The Ministry's national policy statement, presented to the Government in January, is still under consideration.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

An estimated 30,000 Haitians reside in the Bahamas legally and productively, but social, economic and political sensitivities remain. Members of the Haitian community reported that some police and immigration officials have taken Haitians off the streets into custody before allowing them a chance to produce their residency permits. Haitians also complained that officials sometimes came to their residences late at night, a violation of the terms of the expired Bahamas-Haiti repatriation agreement. These alleged violations are difficult to confirm, but some similar past complaints resulted in procedural changes by the authorities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides that labor unions have the right of free assembly and association. Private sector and most public sector workers may form or join unions without prior approval. Members of the police force, defense force, fire brigade, and prison guards may not organize or join unions. Workers exercise the right of association extensively, with almost one-quarter of the work force (and one-half the workers in the important hotel industry) belonging to unions.

The country's two major umbrella labor organizations, the National Workers Council of Trade Unions and Associations and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and individual labor unions all function independent of government or political party control. A third umbrella organization, the National Congress of Trade Unions, continued to grow, adding the third largest union, the Bahamas Union of Teachers, to its membership.

The Industrial Relations Act requires that, before a strike begins, a simple majority of a union's membership must vote in favor of a motion to strike. The Department of Labor must supervise the vote. Unions have instituted slowdowns or stoppages at the Bahamas Electricity Corporation, the Water and Sewerage Corporation, the Ministry of Public Works, Bahamasair, and a popular restaurant in Nassau. In order to resolve trade disputes more quickly, the Industrial Relations Act was amended in July to establish the industrial tribunal. According to the act, trade dispute matters are first filed with the Ministry of Labor and then if not resolved, turned over to the tribunal. The tribunal will follow normal court procedures for the admission of evidence, direct examination, and cross examination. The tribunal's decision is final and is only appealable in court on a strict question of law.

All labor unions have the right to maintain affiliations with international trade union organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers freely exercise their right to organize and participate in collective bargaining, which the law protects. Unions and employers negotiate wage rates without government interference.

The Constitution and the Industrial Relations Act prohibit antiunion discrimination by employers. The act requires employers to recognize trade unions, and it requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. Employers may dismiss workers in accordance with applicable contracts, which generally require some severance pay. The Government enforces labor laws and regulations uniformly throughout the country. City Markets, one of the largest grocery chains, filed a lawsuit in September to void the certification of the Commercial Stores, Supermarkets, and Warehouse Workers' Union as the bargaining agent for its workers.

There are two small free trade zones. Labor law and practice in these zones do not differ from those in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and such labor does not exist in practice.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 for industrial work, work during school hours, or work at night. There is no legal minimum age for employment in other sectors, and some children work part time in light industry and service jobs.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Fair Labor Standards Act limits the regular workweek to 48 hours and provides for one 24-hour rest period. The act requires overtime payment (time and a half) for hours beyond the standard. The act permits the creation of a Wages Council to recommend the setting of a minimum wage, but the Government has never established such a council or a general minimum wage. However, in September the Government established a specific minimum wage for all hourly and temporary workers throughout the public sector.

The Ministry of Labor, responsible for enforcing labor laws, has a team of inspectors who conduct on-site visits to enforce occupational health and safety standards and investigate employee concerns and complaints, but inspections occur only infrequently. The Ministry normally announces inspection visits in advance, and employers generally cooperate with inspectors to implement safety standards.

The national insurance program compensates workers for work-related injuries. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to find suitable alternative employment for employees injured on the job but still able to work. The law does not provide a right for workers to absent themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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