By SANCHESKA BROWN
Tribune Staff Reporter
POLICE abuse, detainee abuse and witness intimidation were once again listed as the most serious human rights issues the Bahamas faces, according to a newly released human rights report from the US State Department.
However, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Fred Mitchell said that, while the report is being reviewed by his ministry, there appeared to be no need for alarm or undue concern.
Other human rights problems highlighted in the report included poor detention conditions; corruption; violence and discrimination against women; sexual abuse of children; and discrimination based on ethnic descent, sexual orientation, or HIV status.
The latest report also acknowledged that the government took action against police officers accused of an abuse of power, and there was not a widespread perception of impunity.
The report also once again stated that there were questionable deaths of suspects while in police custody as well as occasional reports of fatal shootings.
“Bystanders at some shootings claimed that police were too quick to use their firearms and, in some instances, declared that police officers acted unprofessionally. Police investigated all such incidents and referred them to a Coroner’s Court for further evaluation. In addition all deaths in police custody go before the Coroner’s Court. Authorities reported five fatalities in police operations through November,” the report said.
“On February 8, a suspect died in police custody, hours after police brought him in for questioning in connection with an armed robbery and escape. In May a Coroner’s Court jury ruled that the death was an “unlawful killing.” The coroner forwarded the case to the Attorney General to determine whether charges or other action would be brought against the officers involved. Authorities had made no decision by November.”
The report also noted that Prison and Detention Centre conditions failed to meet international standards, and conditions at Her Majesty’s Prison at Fox Hill (HMP), the country’s only prison, remained harsh and unsanitary for many prisoners.
“In September authorities reported confining as many as five inmates to cells intended for one or two prisoners. Others remained in poorly ventilated and poorly lit cells that lacked regular running water. Inmates removed human waste by bucket. Authorities installed suitable waste plumbing in the maximum-security unit, but toilets were not yet in place. Authorities allowed maximum-security inmates outside for exercise four days a week for one hour per day. Medium- security and minimum-security units had running water and toilets and, in some cases, a television for prisoners to watch,” the report said.
“Prison guards complained about conditions, including inadequate running water in the prison, repairs needed for the women’s prison, and improper management of officers. They also cited the lack of a full-time dentist, failure to appoint a staff psychiatrist, incomplete perimeter walls for more than five years, and a damaged roof in need of repair in the maximum-security block; moreover, they asserted that the use of prison guards at the remand center violated the Prison Act.”
The report also mentioned the alleged abuse of five Cuban detainees while at the Detention Centre but noted that apart from that incident “authorities reported only minor complaints from the detainees during the year, mostly concerning type and quantity of food. “
As it relates to the Judiciary the report said as in previous years, “a significant backlog of cases awaiting trial by the Supreme Court remained a problem.”
“Delays reportedly lasted five years or more,” the report said. “The courts have not kept pace with the rise in criminal cases and remained insufficient to address the growing backlog of cases. Once cases go to trial, they were often further delayed due to poor case and court management. Examples of shortcomings included inaccurate handling or presentation of evidence and inaccurate scheduling of witnesses, jury members, and accused criminals for testimony.”
In a press release, the US Embassy said the report only “provides a snap shot of the conditions in each country.”
Mr Mitchell said: “The report for 2013 is being reviewed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“From what has been seen so far, there is no need for any alarm or undue concern.
“In a free and open society like ours, anyone is free to comment and investigate the human rights record of our country and we do not fear such an examination.
“We will take note of any errors or overreaches in the report and it will have to be determined to what extent we address those issues.”