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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Trinidad and Tobago

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1996
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Trinidad and Tobago, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa3e24.html [accessed 12 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

 

Trinidad and Tobago, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, is a parliamentary democracy in which there have been free and fair general elections since independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. A bicameral Parliament and a Prime Minister govern the country. Parliament elects the President, whose office is largely ceremonial. A 12-member elected House of Assembly handles local matters on the island of Tobago.

The Ministry of National Security controls the police service and the defense force, which are responsive to civilian authority. An independent body, the Police Service Commission, makes all personnel decisions in the police service, and the Ministry has little direct influence over changes in senior positions. Some members of the police service allegedly committed human rights abuses.

The country's mixed economy is based primarily on the petroleum and natural gas industries, but efforts are being made to diversify the economy into services, manufacturing, and tourism. The Government has historically owned many businesses wholly or partially; however, under a major divestment program a number of state-owned corporations have been privatized either partially or completely.

Citizens enjoy a wide range of civil liberties and individual rights. Nonetheless, human rights abuses included overcrowded prisons, violence against women, and allegations of beatings and extrajudicial killings by the police. Increased violent crime and narcotics trafficking strained the justice system, which was severely bogged down by excessive delays. However, the Government has taken steps to improve judicial performance, including the introduction of court sessions at night.

Respect for Human Rights

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

On August 30, unidentified masked gunmen shot and killed a low-level member of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, who participated in a 1990 coup attempt, in an ambush. A key Jamaat leader, who was riding in the same car with the murder victim, escaped uninjured. Persistent rumors pointed to possible involvement in the murder by the police service, although senior officials denied police complicity. There were other rumors alleging internecine rivalries in the Jamaat.

Two other low-level Jamaat members, who also participated in the 1990 coup, were murdered in June, the day after the murder of former Attorney General Selwyn Richardson (see below).

While speculation pointed to a connection between the crimes, there have been no arrests nor any suspects identified.

On June 20 unidentified assassins shot and killed Selwyn Richardson, a prominent attorney who served as Minister of Health, Minister of National Security, and Attorney General at various times between 1976 and 1991, in front of his home in Port of Spain. No arrests have been made, and motives for the crime are unclear. Richardson, who retired in 1991, was injured during the 1990 coup attempt by the Jamaat al Muslimeen, when he and others were taken hostage in the Parliament building.

In July a prisoner died in police custody at a public hospital, allegedly due to torture by police (see Section 1.c.).

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits the imposition of cruel or unusual treatment or punishment.

In July a prisoner arrested for assault and robbery died in police custody at a public hospital. Police allegedly tortured the prisoner who was said to be healthy at the time of his arrest. Officials have not issued any reprimands to police officers involved in the incident.

Courts frequently order the flogging of prisoners, but this is not actually carried out in practice. The relevant statute requires that the punishment be carried out within 6 months of sentencing; defendants appeal all flogging sentences, and courts do not hear the appeals before the 6-month deadline.

Overcrowding is a serious problem in men's prisons, where shortages of guards and unsanitary conditions have led to serious social and health problems. Conditions are most serious in the older facilities: Port of Spain Prison, for example, has a capacity of 250 inmates, but houses 983. Diseases such as chicken pox, tuberculosis, AIDS, and other viruses spread easily, and prisoners generally must purchase their own medication. Construction problems have delayed completion of a large, modern detention facility until 1996. Facilities for, and treatment of, women prisoners appear to be better, with a strong and successful orientation toward rehabilitation.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary detention, imprisonment, or exile of any person. A police officer may arrest a person either based on a warrant issued or authorized by a magistrate or without a warrant when the officer witnesses commission of the alleged offense. In less serious offenses, the authorities typically bring the accused before a magistrate within 24 hours; for indictable offenses, the accused must appear within 48 hours. At that time the magistrate reads the charge and determines the availability of bail. (A recently enacted bail bill authorizes magistrates to deny bail to violent and repeat offenders.) If for some reason the accused does not come before the magistrate, the case comes up on the magistrate's docket every 8 to 10 days until a hearing date is set. The courts notify persons of their right to an attorney and allow them access to an attorney once they are in custody and prior to any interrogation. The authorities do not always comply with these standards, however.

The Minister of National Security may authorize preventive detention in order to prevent actions prejudicial to public safety, public order, or the defense of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Minister must state the grounds for the detention. A detainee under this provision has access to counsel and may have his detention reviewed by a three-member tribunal established by the Chief Justice and chaired by an attorney. The Minister must provide the tribunal with the grounds for the detention within 7 days of the detainee's request for review, which shall be held "as soon as reasonably practicable" following receipt of the grounds. There have been no reports that the authorities abused this procedure.

In order to thwart a plot to bring down the Government, which according to the Prime Minister was allegedly planned by opposition leader and Speaker of the House Occah Seapaul, the Government declared a limited state of emergency in August. Under the emergency decree, Seapaul was placed under house arrest for 4 days and the Minister of National Security carefully controlled visits to her residence. This gave the Government time to pass legislation effectively removing her from office. Only Seapaul was affected by the decree. Seapaul contested her detention, alleging she was a political prisoner. The Government has not pressed any criminal charges against her. A ruling on the legality of the state of emergency remains pending.

As noted, exile is forbidden by the Constitution and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is independent in practice and is not influenced by the executive or legislative branches or the military.

The Constitution provides the right to a fair public trial for persons charged with criminal offenses. It also provides for presumption of innocence, reasonable bail, fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, and an interpreter for non-English speakers. The authorities generally respected these rights in practice. Appeals may be made to the national court of appeals and then to the Privy Council in London. All criminal defendants have the right to an attorney. In practice, the courts sometimes appoint attorneys for those persons charged with indictable offenses (serious crimes) if they cannot retain one on their own behalf. The law requires a person accused of murder to have an attorney. An indigent person may refuse to accept an assigned attorney for cause and obtain a replacement. In spite of these provisions, however, there were several allegations by prisoners charged with narcotics trafficking offenses that the authorities did not provide them with attorneys even after they specifically requested counsel.

Despite serious efforts to improve the judiciary, severe inefficiency remains in many areas. Several criminal cases were dismissed due to judicial or police inefficiency. In one case, a magistrate dropped charges against a defendant charged with cocaine trafficking, who spent 2 months in jail, because the police officer who was to present evidence against him was on vacation and did not appear in court. In another case, a defendant charged with illegal firearms possession in 1989, who pleaded guilty when apprehended, had charges against him dropped after 6 years of waiting for trial because police prosecutors lost the case file. Over 20,000 criminal cases introduced since 1986 await trial.

The limited availability of transport to take defendants from prisons to courts is a serious problem contributing to the delay in trials. In September the Government awarded a contract to a private security firm to transport prisoners, and it has also purchased additional police vehicles to help reduce the growing backlog of criminal cases. To further deal with case backlogs, the Arima magistrate's court began night sessions on July 10. Arima, with jurisdiction over narcotics offenses committed at Piarco International Airport, is one of the busiest courts. The Government is replacing the current manual system of court reporting with computer assisted transcription.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The law prohibits such practices, government authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction. Police must obtain search warrants to enter private property.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of the press, and the Government respects this right in practice. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

The three major daily newspapers freely and often criticize the Government in editorials. Widely read weekly tabloids tend to be extremely critical of the Government. All newspapers are privately owned. The two local television newscasts, one of which appears on a state-owned station, are sometimes critical of the Government but generally do not editorialize.

A board of film censors is authorized to ban films it considers to be against public order and decency or contrary to the public interest. This includes films which it believes may be controversial in matters of religion, seditious propaganda or race. In practice, films are rarely prohibited, but in April the board banned the theatrical release of one film, citing its glorification of violence and drug abuse.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the rights of freedom of assembly and association, and the Government respects these rights in practice. Registration or other governmental permission to form private associations is not required. The police routinely grant the required advance permits for street marches, demonstrations, or other public outdoor meetings. During the August state of emergency (see Section l.d.), the Government banned public demonstrations; many entertainment events, although not officially prohibited, were cancelled.

Political activity by trade associations or professional bodies is not restricted, and these organizations affiliate freely with recognized international bodies in their fields.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the authorities respect 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. Residents are free to emigrate, return, and travel within or outside the country, as well as to change residence and workplace. Although Trinidad and Tobago is not a party to any U.N. convention or protocol on refugees, there were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status. There is no provision for persons to claim or be classified as refugees or asylum seekers; any such cases are handled on a case by case basis by the Ministry of National Security's Immigration Division.

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

Citizens choose their government by secret ballot in free and fair multiparty elections held at intervals not to exceed 5 years. Elections for the 12-member Tobago House of Assembly are held every 4 years. The Constitution extends the right to vote to citizens as well as to legal residents with citizenship in other Commonwealth countries who are at least 18 years of age.

General elections were held on November 6. The opposition United National Congress (UNC) and the ruling People's National Movement (PNM) won the same number of seats (17) in Parliament. The National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) won two seats and joined with the UNC in forming a new government. Basdeo Panday became Trinidad's first Prime Minister of East Indian descent.

The PNM is primarily but not exclusively Afro-Trinidadian; the UNC is primarily but not exclusively Indo-Trinidadian.

There are no specific laws that restrict women or minorities from participating in government or the political parties, and women hold many positions in the Government and political party leadership. Four out of 36 elected members of the House of Representatives and 9 out of 31 appointed senators are female, with 3 serving as ministers. Prime Minister Panday appointed a woman as attorney general. She is the first female attorney general and the only Indo-Trinidadian woman in the Cabinet.

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

Several small nongovernmental human rights groups operate freely without government restriction or interference. A law established the office of the Ombudsman, which receives complaints relating to government administrative issues and investigates complaints of human rights abuse. The Ombudsman can make recommendations but does not have authority to force government offices to take action.

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

The Government respects in practice the constitutional provisions of fundamental human rights and freedoms to all without discrimination based on race, origin, color, religion or sex.

Women

Physical abuse of women continued to be an extensive problem. At least nine women, and seven of their children, were killed by spouses. There are several shelters for battered women, and a rape crisis center offers counseling for rape victims and perpetrators on a voluntary basis; 355 women voluntarily requested counseling. Law enforcement officials and the courts are generally not sensitive to family violence problems.

Many women hold positions in business, the professions, and government, but men tend to hold the most senior positions. There is no law or regulation requiring equal pay for equal work.

The Division of Women's Affairs in the Ministry of Community Development, Women's Affairs, and Culture is charged with protecting women's rights in all aspects of government and legislation. Prior to the U.N. Conference on Women's Rights in Beijing, the Ministry, which is led by a woman, organized several seminars on women's issues and publicized women's rights. Several active women's rights groups also exist.

Children

The Government's ability to protect children's welfare is limited by a lack of funding and expanding social needs. Some parts of the public school system seriously fail to meet the needs of the school age population due to overcrowding, substandard physical facilities, and occasional classroom violence from gangs. There is no pattern of social abuse directed at children. The Domestic Violence Act provides protection for children abused at home. Abused children are usually placed with relatives if they are removed from the home. If there is no relative who can take them, there are several government institutions and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) which accept children.

People With Disabilities

There is no legislation that specifically enumerates or protects the rights of disabled persons nor mandates the provision of access to buildings or services, although NGO's lobbied Parliament to pass such legislation. Nonaccessibility of transportation, buildings, and sidewalks is a major obstacle to the disabled. Only one van in the country is equipped with a hydraulic lift; the other such van broke down during the year and was not repaired. The Government provides some public assistance and partial funding to a variety of NGO's which, in turn, provide direct services to disabled members or clients.

Indigenous People

Members of a very small group in the population identify themselves as descendants of the original Amerindian population of the island. They maintain social ties with each other and other aboriginal groups and are not subject to discrimination.

Religious Minorities

In January a lower court ruled that a partially state-funded Catholic school must admit a female student wearing a Muslim hijab head covering; the student had missed the 1994 fall term because the school claimed that she violated the dress code by wearing a hijab. The judge ruled that the school in question was public since it received public funds and found no evidence to support the school's claim that wearing the hijab led to indiscipline.

Some segments of the Hindu community objected to the name of the highest national civilian decoration, the Trinity cross, and have called for it to be changed to one less identified with Christianity. For this reason, a prominent Hindu religious leader refused the award in 1995.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Various ethnic and religious groups live together peacefully, generally respecting each other's beliefs and practices. However, at times racial tensions appear between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians. Each group comprises about 40 percent of the population. The private sector is dominated by Indo-Trinidadians and people of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent. Indo-Trinidadians also predominate in agriculture. Afro-Trinidadians tend to find employment in disproportionate numbers in the civil service, police, and military. Some Indo-Trinidadians assert that they are excluded from equal representation in the civil service due to racial discrimination. Since Indo-Trinidadians constitute the majority in rural areas and Afro-Trinidadians are in the majority in urban areas, competition between town and country for public goods and services often takes on racial overtones.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The law provides that all workers, including those in state-owned enterprises, may form or join unions of their own choosing without prior authorization. Union membership has declined with 14 unions active. An estimated 20 to 28 percent of the work force is unionized. Most unions are independent of the Government or political party control, although the Sugar Workers' Union is historically allied with the PNC, and the new Prime Minister was formerly president of the Sugar Workers' Union.

The law prohibits antiunion activities before a union is legally registered, and the Ministry of Labor enforces this provision when it receives a complaint. A union may also bring a request for enforcement to the Industrial Court. All employees except those in "essential services," such as government employees and police, have the right to strike.

A major strike against Petrotrin, the state-owned oil corporation, resulted in several incidents of violence and industrial sabotage. However, the Government did not interfere in the strike. The strike was settled on September 18 with the workers receiving a 7-percent pay increase.

Public service employees, who are owed approximately $430 million in back wages by the Government, carried out several relatively successful work slowdowns and threatened to shut down public services if the Government did not act on the issues of back pay, cost of living allowances, and merit increments. The new Government has promised to revisit the issue of back pay.

The Labor Relations Act prohibits retribution against strikers and provides for grievance procedures if any is alleged. A special section of the Industrial Court handles mandatory arbitration cases. Arbitration agreements are enforceable and appealable only to the Industrial Court.

Unions freely join federations and affiliate with international bodies. There are no restrictions on international travel or contacts.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Industrial Relations Act of 1972 establishes the right of workers to collective bargaining. The Ministry of Labor conciliation service maintains statistical information regarding the number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements and the number of antiunion complaints filed.

The Industrial Court may order employers found guilty of antiunion activities to reinstate workers and pay compensation, or it can impose other penalties including prison. When necessary, the conciliation service also determines which unions should have senior status.

There are several newly organized export processing zones (EPZ's). The same labor laws apply in the EPZ's as in the country at large.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory labor

The law does not explicitly prohibit forced or compulsory labor, but there were no reports that it was practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum legal age for workers is 12 years. Children from 12 to 14 years of age may only work in family businesses. Children under age 18 may legally work only during daylight, with the exception of 16- to 18-year-olds, who may work nights in sugar factories. The probation service in the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services is responsible for enforcing child labor provisions, but enforcement is lax. There is no organized exploitation of child labor, but children are often seen vending and begging, and some are used by criminals as guards and couriers.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. The Government has set minimum wages in 53 job categories in 5 nonunionized occupational groupings. The minimum pay ranges from $26 (TT$130.45) per week to $57 (TT$285) per week. These rates were to be adjusted for cost-of-living increases at regular intervals, but Parliament has never considered an adjustment since passing the laws. The Ministry of Labor enforces the minimum wage regulations. A minimum wage is not sufficient to support a worker and family, but most workers earn more than the minimum.

The standard workweek is 40 hours. There are no restrictions on overtime work. Daily rest periods and paid annual leave form part of most employment agreements. For those sectors covered, the minimum wage laws provide holiday pay, 2 weeks' vacation, and 14 days' sick leave per year.

The Factories and Ordinance Bill of 1948 sets requirements for health and safety standards in certain industries and provides for inspections to monitor and enforce compliance. The Industrial Relations Act protects workers who file complaints with the Ministry of Labor regarding illegal or hazardous working conditions. Should it be determined upon inspection that conditions exist in the workplace which present hazards, the worker is absolved in refusing to comply with an order that would have placed him or her in danger.

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