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US paints bleak picture of human rights violations in SVG

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By Nelson A. King in New York 20.MAR.08

The United States Department of State has painted a bleak picture of human rights violations in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

In its “US Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007,” released Tuesday, March 11, the State Department said problems primarily surround “impunity for police who used excessive force, poor prison conditions, an overburdened court system, violence against women, and abuse of children.”{{more}}

“Although the law prohibits such practices, the nongovernmental organization (NGO), St. Vincent and the Grenadines Human Rights Association (SVGHRA), asserted that many confessions resulted from unwarranted police practices, including the use of physical force during detention,” it said.

“The SVGHRA complained that the government failed to investigate adequately allegations of abuse or punish those police officers responsible for such abuses,” it added.

[The SVGHRA is headed by attorney Nicole Sylvester, who is alleged to be sympathetic to the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP)]

The report said, while citizens filed 42 allegations of assault, two complaints of disrespect, and 22 complaints of negligence, harassment, or threats by members of the police force, at year’s end, “the authorities had brought disciplinary charges against one police officer, and a hearing was pending.”

“One other matter was referred to the Department of Public Prosecution (DPP),” it said. “All other cases were still under investigation at year’s end.”

The State Department referred to the case of “a well-known Calypso singer,” who claimed that a constable slapped him on the face.

“Police investigated the incident and disputed the legitimacy of the claim,” it said.

“However, the case was referred to the DPP, where it remained at year’s end,” it added.

The report, however, said that the police force made efforts to educate its ranks on proper conduct and citizens’ rights, noting that the authorities brought in a former attorney general to speak to the general membership of the police force on the appropriate use of force, and that the commissioner of police addressed them late in the year to emphasize the importance of respecting the rights of citizens.

The State Department said prison conditions “remained poor,” stating that prison buildings were “antiquated and overcrowded, with Her Majesty’s Prison in Kingstown holding 373 inmates in a building intended to hold approximately 150 inmates, a situation that created serious health and safety problems.”

But despite reforms at Her Majesty’s Prison, the US said “problems, such as endemic violence, understaffing, underpaid guards, uncontrolled weapons and drugs, increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS, and unhygienic conditions persisted.”

It charged that “corrupt prison staff commonly served as a source of drugs, weapons, and cell phones.”

“The SVGHRA reported that guards routinely beat prisoners to extract information regarding escapes, violence, and crime committed in the prison,” it said, stating that, in March last year, several Muslim prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest poor conditions and the lack of the appropriate food for their Islamic diet.

It said, In September, a fight between inmates and guards led to a three-day lockdown of the facility.

The State Department said the Fort Charlotte Prison held nine female inmates in a separate section, designed to hold 50 inmates, adding: “conditions were antiquated and unhygienic.”

“Pretrial detainees and young offenders, 16 to 21 years of age, were held with convicted prisoners,” it said.

In addition, it said conditions were inadequate for juvenile offenders, with boys under the age of 16 being held at the Liberty Lodge Boys’ Training Center, which takes in boys who can no longer stay at home due to domestic problems or involvement with criminal activity.

It said most of the 30 boys were at the center because of domestic problems, and only a small number were charged with committing a crime.

The State Department said though the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, and the government generally observed these prohibitions, complaints continued regarding police practices in bringing cases to court.

It said the law provides for an independent judiciary, and that the government generally respected this provision in practice.

“However, there were allegations of undue government influence over a magistrate’s contract renewal,” it said.

The State Department said though the government did not directly interfere with the press, “there continued to be many accounts of the prime minister or other officials rebuking the press for comments critical of the government.

“In March three prominent female lawyers reported that they had received death threats allegedly because they participated in an opposition party rally,” it said.

“No investigation was opened, but the threats soon stopped,” it added.

The State Department said while the law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, “the government did not always enforce these laws effectively, and corruption remained a moderate problem.”

“There was anecdotal evidence of corruption and nepotism in government contracting,” it said, adding that “there were no financial disclosure laws for public officials and no government agency specifically responsible for combating government corruption.”

The report said violence against women “remained a serious problem,” stating that the law “does not criminalize domestic violence but rather provides protection for victims.”

It said cases involving domestic violence were normally charged under assault, battery, or other similar laws.

“The SVGHRA reported that, in many instances, domestic violence went unpunished due to a culture in which victims choose not to seek assistance from the police or the prosecution of offenders,” it said.

The State Department said child abuse was also a problem, with the law providing “a limited legal framework for the protection of children.”

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