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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Trinidad and Tobago

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Trinidad and Tobago, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa462c.html [accessed 21 September 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, 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 both generally 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, often with impunity.

The country's mixed economy is based primarily on the petroleum and natural gas industries, but efforts continue to diversify the economy into services, manufacturing, and tourism. The Government has historically owned many businesses wholly or partially; however, a major divestment program continued to privatize several state-owned corporations, either partially or completely.

Citizens enjoy a wide range of civil liberties and individual rights. Human rights abuses included overcrowded prisons, violence against women, and allegations of beatings and extrajudicial killings by police. Sharply increased violent crime and narcotics trafficking created unprecedented strains on the administration of justice system, which was severely undermined by murder and intimidation of witnesses, allegations of corruption, and excessive delays.

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 by the police or other security forces.

Police shot and killed approximately 11 people during 1994. All allegedly occurred during exchanges of gunfire, with the police acting in self-defense, and none was determined to be extrajudicial killings. The authorities' inquest into the death of a man shot by the police in 1990 was still under way at the end of 1994. The inquest heard evidence that the post mortem report appeared to have been altered before submission to the coroner.

There were several alleged suicides of prisoners while in police custody. In one case, when a 34-year-old man died from drinking herbicide while handcuffed in his jail cell, family members charged it was a "cover" for an extrajudicial police killing. They asserted that the police had forced the deceased to drink the poison. No inquest had been held on the matter by year's end, and the inquest may be delayed for several years because magistrates hold such inquests on an ad hoc basis.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits the imposition of cruel or unusual treatment or punishment. However, allegations of beating while in police custody were common. For example, one prisoner accused jailers of beating him in custody pending trial and appeared at a court hearing with his jaws wired shut and showing evidence of other injuries. He stated that he had not complained to prison authorities for fear of being forced to miss his court date. The authorities conducted an internal investigation but closed it when the accused prison officers denied any involvement. Other prisoners complained of beatings by prison guards, but the authorities took no action to investigate the complaints or punish the perpetrators. By law the government Ombudsman may investigate charges of prisoner beatings, but in practice he does not.

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 prisons which, together with shortages of guards and unsanitary conditions, leads to serious social and health consequences. Conditions are worst in the older facilities: Port of Spain prison was built to hold 250 inmates, but houses 1,079; Carrera prison, designed to hold 185, has 547. There were many reports of rapes, murders, assaults, and attempts to commit these crimes among inmates and between inmates and guards. Diseases such as chicken pox, tuberculosis, AIDS, and other viruses spread easily in the prisons. A large, modern detention facility is scheduled to open in March 1995.

The facilities for, and treatment of, women prisoners appear exceptionally humane, with a strong and successful orientation to 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, and a court awarded $18,000 to three brothers whom police wrongfully arrested, detained for 3hdays, threatened with beatings, and failed to advise of their right to an attorney. 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 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.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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 appoint an attorney for those persons charged with indictable offenses (serious crimes) if they do not 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 the constitutional provisions outlined above, the administration of justice system has been seriously undermined by murder, intimidation, corruption, and excessive delays. A remarkable number of witnesses and potential witnesses (mostly in narcotics-related cases) were killed, or disappeared, emigrated, or otherwise failed to cooperate with the prosecution. In most of these instances, the authorities dropped charges against the accused as a result of the absence of key witnesses. The murders highlighted the Government's inability to protect prospective witnesses, undermining public confidence in the justice system's ability to provide a fair public trial to all defendants. The most significant test case is the proceeding against one of the reputed major narcotics figures in the country, who has been charged with murder. Witness protection has been successful through the preliminary inquiry stage of the proceeding.

Credible witnesses frequently allege bribery of police, magistrates, and judges in drug cases, but the authorities conducted no investigations. There were also charges that drug traffickers bribed witnesses not to testify. Trials often occur as long as 6 to 10 years after the alleged criminal act, when evidence may be lost, memories fade, and any deterrent effect is lost on the accused. Inordinate court delays, which stem partially from the system itself but also from defense attorneys' and prosecutors' use of repeated adjournments, have undermined public confidence in the judicial system's ability to provide a fair trial.

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

The authorities generally respected in practice the constitutional provisions for the rights to security of the person, enjoyment of property, and respect for private and family life. Police must obtain search warrants to enter private property. There were occasional reports of search warrants or drug raids executed on the wrong houses, but persons injured in this manner have redress through a civil action for damages.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution recognizes these freedoms and an independent judiciary, a democratic and pluralistic political system, and independent and privately owned media protect these rights in practice.

The two major daily newspapers sometimes criticize the Government in their editorials; the widely read tabloids are extremely critical of the Government. Licensing agreements require the three television stations to broadcast a certain amount of informational programming produced and provided by the Government. The opposition has, over the years, accused the government-owned station of favoring the ruling party. There are seven radio stations, one of which is government owned.

The Government may prohibit the import or circulation of publications under the Sedition Act, but the authorities have rarely invoked it in recent years. 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.

The law protects academic freedom, and the authorities respect it.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution recognizes the rights of freedom of association and assembly, and the Government respects them 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. 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 conscience and religious belief, and the authorities respect these rights in practice.

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

The Constitution recognizes freedom of movement as a fundamental human right, and the authorities respect it 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. Prime Minister Patrick Manning's People's National Movement (PNM) holds the majority of seats in the 36-member lower house of Parliament. The President appoints a 31-member Senate, 16 on the advice of the Prime Minister, 6 on the advice of the leader of the opposition, and 9 at the President's discretion. The ruling PNM is primarily but not exclusively Afro-Trinidadian; the opposition United National Congress party is primarily but not exclusively Indo-Trinidadian. The fundamentalist Muslim "Jamaat al Muslimeen", which attempted a coup in 1990, organized a New Vision political party and contested a local election in 1994.

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. There are 14 female Members of Parliament, 4 of whom are ministers, and the head of a newly formed opposition party is a female Member of Parliament.

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

Several 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; it can make recommendations but does not have authority to force any government offices to take action. Regional and local human rights groups focused on a Privy Council ruling on a Jamaican case in 1993, which commuted death sentences for 56 inmates who had been on death row for 5 years or more in Trinidad. The Trinidad authorities hanged Glen Ashby, a condemned murderer, in July less than 1 week before the 5-year cut-off date. Based on the Jamaican case, Ashby's attorneys had filed additional appeals to the Privy Council challenging the State's intention to carry out the execution as unconstitutional. Prison officials hanged Ashby only minutes before the Privy Council's decision to stay the execution reached Trinidad from London.

Human rights monitors alleged that Ashby's hanging was illegal because all appeal rights had not been exhausted. Legal and human rights groups held a "public commission of inquiry" in Barbados 1 month after the hanging, but Trinidad officials refused to participate on the grounds that such a commission had no authority in a domestic legal matter. As a result of the Ashby case, the Prime Minister's blue ribbon anticrime committee recommended that appeals of death sentences be limited to the national court of appeals, eliminating the Privy Council as the court of final decision on such motions.

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

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.

Physical abuse of women continued to be an extensive problem. Domestic violence resulted in the deaths of 15 women, in some cases despite the existence of a protection order. There are several shelters for battered women, and a rape crisis center offers counseling for rape victims and perpetrators on a voluntary basis. In 1994, 68 rape victims and 48 battered wives (new cases) came in voluntarily for counseling. Law enforcement officials and the courts are generally not sensitive to family violence problems. There were repeated reports of officers refusing to take women's complaints of domestic violence. More than 300 women filed for protection orders under the Domestic Violence Act, and some courts decided to stop hearing protection order cases because they were too time-consuming.

The Division of Women's Affairs in the Ministry of Community Development and Culture is charged with protecting women's rights in all aspects of government and legislation. The Division received funding for four positions in 1994 and established an agenda with the following priorities: access to credit, employment, domestic violence, and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Children

The Government's ability to protect children's welfare is limited by a lack of funding and expanding social needs. The public school system seriously fails to meet the needs of the school age population, due to overcrowding, substandard physical facilities, and classroom violence from gangs. There is no pattern of social abuse directed against 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 two Government institutions and several nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) which take children.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Various ethnic and religious groups live together peacefully, generally respecting each other's beliefs and practices. However, racial tensions continue between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians, with each group comprising over 40 percent of the population. The private sector is dominated by Indo-Trinidadians and people of European and Middle Eastern descent. Indo-Trinidadians also predominate in agriculture. Afro-Trinidadians 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 the majority in urban areas, competition between town and country for public goods and services often takes on racial overtones.

A very small group in the population identifies itself as descendants of the original native American population of the island. They maintain social ties with each other and other aboriginal groups.

Religious Minorities

Some groups charged the authorities with religious discrimination over the question of the extent to which female students should be allowed to alter the standard school uniforms of the partially state-funded, denominational schools by wearing the Muslim hijab. In prior years, denominational school boards had accommodated the question of the hijab by allowing students to wear a head covering in addition to the regulation uniform. Negotiations between denominational school boards and representatives of Islamic groups were unsuccessful in working out a compromise solution for the 1994-95 school year. The Trinidad and Tobago courts will have to decide: What is a hijab, whether it is a bona fide religious requirement, and what accommodation in the school uniform, if any, will be required. More fundamentally, public discussion of this issue led to calls for broad reexamination of the "concordat"--the 1960 agreement by which denominational schools receive public funding for accepting students from public elementary schools--and of church-state relations in general. The Government stated that the concordat will not be reopened or revised for the time being.

People with Disabilities

There is no legislation which specifically enumerates or protects the rights of disabled persons, nor which mandates the provision of access to buildings or services. Nonaccessibility of transportation, buildings, and sidewalks is a major obstacle to the disabled; only two vans in the country are equipped with hydraulic lifts. The Government does provide some public assistance and partial funding to a variety of NGO's which, in turn, provide direct services to disabled members or clients.

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 been decreasing, with 26 unions still functioning, but many doing so with a fraction of their membership from former years. Most unions are independent of the Government or political party control, although the Sugar Workers' Union is historically allied with the current opposition party.

The law prohibits antiunion activities before a union is legally registered, and the Ministry of Labor enforces this provision when it receives a complaint, or a union may bring a request for enforcement to the Industrial Court. All employees except those in "essential services" (basically government employees, including police) have the right to strike. There were no major strikes, but a number of work stoppages lasted several days. 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 discrimination to reinstate the worker, pay compensation, or 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) in Trinidad and Tobago. 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 its enforcement is lax. There is no organized exploitation of child labor, but children can be 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 for 53 job categories in 5 nonunionized occupational groupings. The minimum pay ranges from $26 per week (TT$130.45) to $57 per week (TT$285). These rates were supposed to be adjusted for cost-of-living increases at regular intervals, but Parliament has never considered any adjustment since passing the laws. The Ministry of Labor enforces the minimum wage regulations. A minimum wage income is not sufficient to support an individual, 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 1948 Factories and Ordinance bill sets requirements for health and safety standards in certain industries and provides for inspections to monitor and enforce compliance. The Industrial Relations Act of 1972 protects workers who file complaints with the Ministry of Labor regarding illegal or hazardous working conditions to the extent that, should it be determined upon inspection that conditions exist in the workplace which present hazards to life or limb, the worker is absolved in refusing to comply with an order which would have placed him or her in harm's way.

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