The US State Department’s 2022 Country Report on Human Right’s Practices for T&T is flagging police impunity, the treatment of asylum seekers, corruption and trafficking of persons as areas of major concern.
“The Government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption, but impunity persisted due to open-ended investigations and the generally slow pace of criminal judicial proceedings,” the report found in its section on T&T.
The report, which was released yesterday, is divided into seven sections, with the longest dealing with discrimination and societal abuses which assessed the laws that dealt with rape, gender-based violence, child abuse and various forms of discrimination.
It found that “rape and domestic violence were serious and pervasive problems” but despite the establishment of a Victim and Witness Support Unit within the T&T Police Service, victims still complained that officers trivialised reports of abuse and rape, especially if the victim and the perpetrator are married to each other. The report also found that courts “often imposed considerably shorter sentences in cases of spousal rape.”
The report highlighted the shooting death of PC Clarence Gilkes in April last year and the treatment of Jehlano Romney, who was initially named as the primary suspect before the investigation fingered police officers for the shooting death of their colleague.
It also highlighted the shooting death of Fabien Richards, Leonardo Niko Williams and Isaiah Roberts in July of 2022 by police in Port-of-Spain. The men’s families had proclaimed their innocence and the autopsy found that all had been shot from behind.
The shooting of Jamie Walker in the parking lot of WEE Supermarket by a special reserve police officer last October and the 2021 deaths of Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris while in police custody were also highlighted. Balcon and Morris had been arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Andrea Bharatt in 2021.
While both the Police Complaints Authority and the Professional Standards Bureau were acknowledged as investigating these incidents, the report noted that all remain unresolved by the criminal justice system.
Corruption at all levels of state operation was also noted.
“Credible reports of opaque public procurement processes and public service contracts with known gang leaders were a concern. Statutes governing conflicts of interest were rarely enforced, making nepotism and corruption commonplace. There were credible reports of government ministries and public companies manipulating or bypassing established procurement procedures to favour specific vendors unfairly,” the report found.
The general state of the prisons were found to be wanting, with the report singling out the minimal improvement in the women’s facilities.
Last June, Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds announced several refurbishment programmes for many prisons. In fiscal 2022, the Government allocated just over $15 million to facilitate upgrades and the transition of the prisons from “a system of retribution to restoration” via a variety of projects, including the renovation of a ration room within the Golden Grove Prison which is 82% complete, according to the Public Sector Investment Programme 2022.
Commenting yesterday on the general state of human rights in T&T in the wake of the report’s release, Executive Director of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights, Denise Pitcher, said, “We do enjoy a relatively high level of human rights in Trinidad and Tobago in terms of access to education, access to health but we do fall short in quite a number of ways.”
She said access to justice remains a massive problem and forms a “big gap” in the country’s human rights record. She said the level of gender-based violence is also “particularly disturbing” and there remain serious issues surround the violation of the rights of children.
Pitcher said while no country is immune from human rights violations, the scale of the violations here, especially in relation to the population, was “particularly disturbing.”
Under the section “Respect for Civil Liberties,” the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was referred to several times for its work with refugees and asylum-seekers in the report. However, the report notes there remains no formal process for persons seeking asylum. So, while the UNHCR is allowed to determine who can be assigned refugee status, the US report found “a positive determination by UNHCR, however, did not confer recognition by the Government of an individual as a refugee or otherwise affect the person’s legal status in the country.”
Contacted for comment yesterday, the UNHCR said it works with partners, including the T&T Government, to serve refugees and asylum seekers and “continues to advocate for refugee and asylum seeker children to access national education through regular dialogue with the Government and other key stakeholders, including asylum seekers and refugees who would like the opportunity to go to school” because that access remains denied.
It continued, “We stand ready to support Trinidad and Tobago on further steps to develop the national framework for refugees and asylum seekers who reside in the country.”
The report is the latest negative assessment of this country’s human rights procedures from the United States. T&T remains on a Tier 2 Watchlist for the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, which means it runs the risk of being blacklisted by the US as a result. That report said then that while the Government did not fully meet the minimum standards, it was making significant efforts to do so.