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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Trinidad and Tobago

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Trinidad and Tobago, 30 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa510.html [accessed 28 November 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 political and civil rights are provided for by the Constitution and generally respected in practice. Free and fair general elections have been held at regular intervals since independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. The country is governed by a bicameral Parliament and a Prime Minister, who is the leader of the majority party in the lower house. The President, whose office is largely ceremonial, is elected by Parliament. Local matters on the island of Tobago are handled by a 12-member elected House of Assembly.

The police service and the defense force are under the control of and generally responsive to civilian authority embodied in the Ministry of National Security. An independent body, the Police Service Commission, controls all personnel decisions in the police service, and the Ministry has little direct ability to effect changes in senior positions. A Scotland Yard team found evidence of widespread corruption in the police service. Some members of the police service were responsible for extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses, usually committed with impunity.

The country's mixed economy is based primarily on the hydrocarbon sector, but efforts continued to diversify the economy into agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism. The Government historically owned many businesses wholly or partly, but an extensive divestment program gained momentum during the year. Several state-owned corporations were partially or completely privatized, and the Government contemplated further divestment, particularly in the energy sector and public utilities.

Trinidad and Tobago citizens have and exercise a wide range of freedoms and individual rights, but there continued to be incidents of extrajudicial killings, beatings, intimidation, and other abuses by the police. There were no investigations nor any other followup by Government, and the perpetrators of such abuse enjoyed impunity. The administration of justice suffered from police corruption, allegations of favoritism, and prolonged delays. Violence against women remained a severe problem, unaddressed by the Government.

RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killings

There were no reports during 1993 of killings for political motives by the Government or opposition groups. However, there were extrajudicial killings and other abuses of authority by the police. The police service did not publicly release statistics on police shootings, but the local press reported over a dozen shooting incidents involving police officers, approximately half of which resulted in fatalities. In several of these cases, the victims were unarmed. The law requires a public coroner's inquest in a case of death by unnatural causes only when a coroner finds the circumstances warrant it; otherwise it is not mandatory. In practice, inquests were seldom pursued. Despite the existence of a police Internal Investigations Unit, there are no mandatory investigations of police shootings or killings.

In September officers of the narcotics unit shot and killed Alim Mohammed and Zainool Bushrooram during a marijuana eradication raid in central Trinidad. The officers claimed they were fired upon and the two men were killed in the ensuing battle. Weapons were recovered at the scene. Eyewitnesses, however, asserted that the dead men were unarmed and that the initial shots were fired by individuals who then fled the scene. There was no inquest into this shooting.

There were no reports of deaths resulting from abuse by officers of persons in police custody, but an alleged drug trafficker died in the custody of Coast Guard personnel. Although his cause of death was listed as a ruptured spleen, there was credible evidence that the injury resulted from a severe beating administered during a Coast Guard interrogation. There was no further investigation of the circumstances.

A Scotland Yard probe uncovered evidence of corrupt activities by individual police officers, including collusion with narcotics traffickers and drug dealers. It failed, however, to uncover evidence to support the allegation that there was a drug cartel operating within the police services. The investigation was abruptly halted in June. The Ministry of National Security stated that the next stage of the investigation would be handled by selected local officers, but no local followup investigation took place.

In the case of a police constable shot to death during a 1987 training exercise in which only blank ammunition was to have been used, the victim's mother alleged that her daughter witnessed a shadowy transaction involving two government ministers and a high-ranking police officer the day before. After an inquest that lasted nearly 5 years, the chief magistrate referred the case back to the police Internal Investigations Unit. The Scotland Yard probe reportedly uncovered new evidence that may lead to a criminal trial.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances in 1993.

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

The Constitution forbids the Government from imposing or authorizing cruel and unusual treatment or punishment. Under law, any evidence obtained by such means is inadmissible in court.

However, there continued to be credible allegations and charges in court that some police officers had physically abused detainees. The law permits victims of such treatment to sue for civil damages and to file criminal charges against the police officers involved; such suits are occasionally initiated. Damages can be awarded and police officers found guilty of misconduct are subject to disciplinary action. There were credible reports, however, that citizens who lodged complaints against police officers were subjected to reprisals.

In two separate incidents, American citizens lodged complaints against police officers alleging that they were verbally abused and intimidated by the officers. There were also numerous press reports of police intimidation and abuse of suspected criminals and some members of the general public. Disciplinary actions were rarely pursued based on these allegations.

An American citizen prisoner in a Trinidadian jail was reportedly beaten by several prison officers after minor transgressions. This report prompted questions in Parliament, and the prison service conducted an internal investigation into the matter. Several prison officers received official reprimands.

Trinidad and Tobago courts sentence convicted felons to corporal punishment as well as prison sentences in approximately 50 cases a year. Men convicted of rape, assault with a deadly weapon, or aggravated robbery are subject to floggings administered in private by prison officials. The law states that flogging must be administered within 9 months of sentencing but cannot be conducted while an appeal is pending; since appeals are routinely filed but rarely heard within 9 months of initial sentencing, in practice floggings seldom occur.

In 1993 there was one reported flogging of a minor. The individual, an 11-year-old boy, had been apprehended making a delivery of over 200 rocks of crack cocaine. The magistrate ordered the boy to be flogged as punishment, and the sentence was carried out a few days later. The flogging was condemned by local human rights organizations and prompted considerable media attention.

Overcrowding in prisons continued to be a problem, with, in some cases, 11 to 13 men in a 6- by 9-foot cell. Several prisoners died of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), while others suffered from contagious skin diseases. Construction is under way on a new maximum security facility which will accommodate 2,000 inmates and help alleviate the overcrowding.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution specifies that a suspect has the right to be informed promptly of the reason for arrest or detention, which in practice has normally meant within 48 hours. Court orders may be obtained by the police to hold a person longer than normal in order to gather additional evidence. However, there continued to be credible reports that persons were detained incommunicado in excess of this period, without the police having obtained a court order. Arrests without a warrant are permitted when a person is apprehended committing an offense or when reasonable suspicion exists that an offense has been or is about to be committed. A 1991 court ruling held that police must allow a person in police custody to contact an attorney "as early as possible, and in any event before an interrogation takes place."

Detainees generally are allowed access to a lawyer and to family members, but police sometimes deny access if they believe it would impede an investigation. There continued to be charges in the courts and the press that police violated these procedures in specific cases. Persons arrested have the right to a judicial determination of the legality of their detention, and courts have found for complainants in some cases of illegal detention and awarded damages.

The Government is appealing a June 1992 decision that upheld the amnesty that resolved the 1990 coup attempt by the Jamaat al-Muslimeen. Based on this decision, the courts had ruled that the detention of 114 Jamaat members was illegal and ordered the Government to pay damages and court costs.

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 to the tribunal 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. The preventive detention option is not known to have been abused.

Exile is forbidden by law and not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution specifies that persons accused of crimes receive a fair and public trial. The judiciary is independent and not subject to outside interference. Appeals may be made to the court of appeals and eventually to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Criminal defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence and the right to confront witnesses and present evidence. These rights are generally respected in practice. All criminal defendants have the right to an attorney. Legal assistance is available from attorneys registered with the Legal Aid and Advisory Authority of the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services for those who prove that they cannot afford representation. Judges may also appoint attorneys in the courtroom to represent defendants without counsel.

Criminal defendants may be freed on bail pending trial unless charged with murder or treason or detained under state of emergency regulations. The presiding magistrate may suspend bail after consultation with the prosecution and defense.

Due to inadequate resources and the current structure of the judicial system, both criminal and civil cases are often delayed, sometimes for as long as 6 years. All criminal trials are preceded by a preliminary inquiry which determines whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a jury trial. Strict rules of evidence and the requirement that all witnesses who will testify during the trial give testimony before the inquiry add further delays to the process.

Certain serious offenses, and all appeals, are tried before a high court, which suffers from a shortage of judges and a large backlog of cases. Some defendants spend many months or even years in jail awaiting their actual trial.

There are no political prisoners in Trinidad and Tobago.

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

The Constitution prohibits such interference, a prohibition generally respected in practice. However, although judicially issued warrants are required for searches (except under state of emergency regulations), this procedure is not strictly followed. The state-owned telephone company has the ability to monitor telephone calls, and informed observers believe that the police use this facility for domestic intelligence purposes. There are no laws authorizing such monitoring, however, so evidence obtained in this manner may not be used in court.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of expression, and this right is protected in practice by the independent judiciary, a democratic and pluralistic political system, and independent and privately owned media.

According to some journalists, the interlocking directorates of local corporations result in self-censorship by publishers. They also argue that Trinidad's strict libel laws, based on preindependence British models, are prone to unpredictable and excessive damage awards and constitute de facto censorship. In December 1993, Minister of Planning Lenny Saith filed a libel suit against a local daily for articles it printed delving into his personal financial dealings. The newspaper retracted parts of the stories. The threat of libel suits limits the scope of much investigative reporting.

The two major daily newspapers are sometimes critical of the Government in their editorials. Their news coverage appears to report accurately criticism by opposition parties, trade unions, and private citizens. The widely read tabloids are extremely critical of the Government.

The three television stations, as part of their licensing agreements, are required to broadcast informational programming produced and provided by the Government. The Government-owned station has, over the years, been accused by the opposition of favoring the ruling party. There are currently seven radio stations operating in Trinidad and Tobago, one of which is government-owned.

The import or circulation of publications may be prohibited under the Sedition Act, but the law has rarely been invoked 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 may be controversial in matters of religion, seditious propaganda, or race.

Academic freedom is respected and protected by law.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

These freedoms are protected by law and respected in practice. Registration of private organizations is not required. Permits are required in advance for street marches, demonstrations, or other public outdoor meetings and are routinely granted.

c. Freedom of Religion

The right to practice one's religion is provided for by the Constitution and is respected in practice. There is no state religion and no religious test for public office. There are large groups of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, and these and other religious groups are allowed to maintain association with organizations and persons in other countries and to perform religious travel. Religious groups are generally free to establish places to worship and to engage in religious training, education, and publishing. Missionaries are permitted to enter the country and proselytize.

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

Residents are generally free to emigrate and to travel within or outside the country, as well as to change residence and workplace.

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

The citizens of Trinidad and Tobago choose their government by secret ballot in free and fair multiparty, multicandidate elections held, as required by the Constitution, 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. There are no restrictions on the participation of women in political activities. Women hold many positions in the Government and political party leadership.

The Government is formed by the party holding the majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament. The Parliament consists of an elected House of Representatives, whose 36 members represent individual voting constituencies; and a 31-member Senate appointed by the President, 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 Prime Minister is Head of Government; the President, elected by Parliament, is Head of State, a largely ceremonial position.

Prior to December 1986, each election had been won by the People's National Movement (PNM); in December 1991, the PNM was voted back into office after a 5-year hiatus. The opposition United National Congress won 13 of the 36 parliamentary seats, the highest proportion it has ever held. Elections for the Tobago House of Assembly were held in December 1992, and 11 of the 12 seats were won by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), the party that ruled the country between 1986 and 1991.

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

A number of nongovernmental human rights groups operate freely without government restriction or interference. Caribbean Elections Watch, founded in 1990, promotes free and fair elections in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Institute of Human Rights, headquartered in Trinidad, is a regional organization composed of human rights monitors who collect information throughout the region and report on Caribbean human rights matters. The Ombudsman is an officer of Parliament empowered to investigate complaints of violations of human rights law or policy and to report his findings to Parliament.

International human rights organizations are free to visit and discuss human rights with governmental and nongovernmental representatives.

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

The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, language, or social status, and the Government respects these prohibitions.

Women

Discrimination based on sex is illegal. Many women hold positions in business and the professions, as well as in government and political parties. Women's groups speak out publicly on all aspects of public life. Women make up approximately 36 percent of the paid labor force. Collective bargaining agreements cannot be registered with the Industrial Court if they exhibit wage disparities between men and women.

Physical abuse of women and children by family members was reported to be extensive. Parliament passed a domestic violence bill in August 1991 which provided for the filing of restraining orders against abusive family members, a court hearing within 7 days of filing, and criminal penalties for violation of restraining orders. Additional legislation will be required, however, to ensure that adequate mechanisms are in place to enforce the bill. There are several privately operated shelters for battered women which receive a minimal amount of government assistance.

Children

The Government is committed to assuring the human rights and welfare of children. Protection of children from abuse in the home is provided by the Domestic Violence Act. Public assistance legislation provides supplemental income to unemployed and indigent parents based on the number of children. In practice, however, if parents do not have the funds to buy books and uniforms, their children do not attend school. There is no evidence of abuse of children by any government agencies, nor are there any societal practices that violate children's human rights. The Government's commitment to children's welfare is limited only by the scarcity of available resources.

National/Ethnic/Racial Minorities

Trinidad and Tobago includes various ethnic and religious groups that 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 are employed in disproportionate numbers in the civil service, police, and military. 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. Indo-Trinidadian opposition politicians complained that Afro-Trinidadians receive a disproportionate share of government benefits.

Against the backdrop of a perceived crime wave in central Trinidad, in May Member of Parliament Hulsie Bhaggan publicly linked the increased crime, particularly sexual offenses, to racial animosity against Indo-Trinidadians on the part of Afro-Trinidadians. Ms. Bhaggan's allegations, and the subsequent police denial, heightened racial tensions for several months and provoked the organization of vigilante village watch groups throughout the region. These groups were responsible for several assaults against Afro-Trinidadian males whom they suspected of banditry. In almost all cases, these suspicions proved groundless. In July the psychological research center at the University of the West Indies released a report of the crime situation that found no connection between increased crime in the area and racial motivations.

Religious Minorities

Although Hinduism is the second largest religion in Trinidad and Tobago, there are no sixth-form Hindu secondary schools to prepare students for university; there are 18 Christian and 2 Muslim sixth-form facilities. Hindu leaders blame the lag in the performance of Hindu students on government failure to provide adequate facilities and opportunities for the Hindu population. Members of the Muslim community also charged religious discrimination in non-Muslim government secondary schools which prohibit young women from wearing the jeelab (head covering) or chador (head covering and shawl) in the classroom. School administrators responded that all students are required to wear identical uniforms and that preferential treatment contradicted school policy.

People with Disabilities

There is no legislation that specifically protects the employment rights of the disabled, but there exists a body of social services legislation that affords pensions and public assistance for disabled persons unable to find employment. The Government provides substantial funding for private schools and institutions that provide education, child care, and support for disabled children and young adults. The Government has not enacted legislation to assure accessibility for the disabled to government services. The Government released a draft policy in the fall of 1993 listing proposed improvements to the existing policy toward the disabled. The draft was still under discussion at year's end.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The right of association is respected in law and practice. There are 32 active labor unions, with a total membership comprising approximately 32 percent of the work force. The unions are independent of government or political party control, and they freely represent their members' interests. Union members are free to publicize their views and determine their own programs and policies, including their international affiliations.

Workers are permitted, upon expiration of a conciliation period, to strike, and employers are permitted to lock workers out. After a strike or lockout has been in progress for 3 months, either of the parties involved may request the Minister of Labor to refer the question to the Industrial Court, which is part of the independent judiciary, for a binding decision. Strikes and lockouts are not permitted in essential public services (as defined in the Industrial Relations Act), and the Minister of Labor may apply for an injunction to halt any labor action he finds contrary to the national interest; in practice, this has never happened. Workers in essential services with labor grievances may call on the conciliation services of the Ministry of Labor or may take their cases directly to the Industrial Court. However, such cases are not generally processed more quickly than those in the private sector. Workers in essential services may also file civil suits against the Government.

In 1993 members of the Steelworkers' Union staged a 6-week strike against the island's only steel manufacturer. The strike concluded in August when the majority of the membership voted to accept the company's offer.

The PNM Government's decision to proceed aggressively with plans to privatize many state-owned industries led to marked antagonism between several significant unions and the Government. Both the Oilfield Workers Trade Union and the National Union of Government and Federal Workers repeatedly threatened crippling industrial action in efforts to avert the planned privatization of the electrical and water utilities. A government decision to streamline Trinidad's ports resulted in dismissal of two-thirds of the port's workers, who were provided with a voluntary separation plan.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

The constitutional right of workers to organize and bargain collectively is well established and freely practiced. In fact, collective bargaining is the predominant method by which wage levels are established in most industries. Antiunion discrimination is prohibited by law. However, there is no legislation that mandates the rehiring of an employee in a wrongful dismissal case. The Minister of Labor acts as an impartial conciliator in collective bargaining impasses. There are a few complaints each year to the Ministry of Labor about personal antiunion activities, usually involving the suspension or dismissal of an employee who alleges the action was taken at least in part because of union activity. The Ministry of Labor is generally able to resolve those cases brought to it.

Legislation for the establishment of free trade zones, enacted by Parliament in 1988, was implemented in 1992. All Trinidad and Tobago laws, inclusive of those affecting working conditions and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, are applicable in free trade zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Although there is no domestic law prohibiting forced or compulsory labor, it is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Legislation prohibits the employment of children under the age of 12, and children aged 12 to 14 are permitted to work only in family businesses. Education is compulsory until the age of 12. Children may begin apprenticeship at age 15 and regular employment at age 17. The probation service within the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services is the entity responsible for compliance, but enforcement of these restrictions was lax. School-age children were often seen vending on the streets and at the beach.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Legislation enacted in November 1991 significantly broadened the categories of workers covered by minimum wage standards. There is no national minimum wage, but there do exist legislated minimum wages for specific sectors. The lowest such rate is that for domestics which is $26.78 (TT$150) for a 44-hour week. Very few sectors are covered by these rates, and it appears that even in sectors where there is a legislated minimum, most workers earn more than the minimum. The lowest pay rate for government workers covers apprentice woodsmen and is $12.74 (TT$71.35) for an 8-hour day.

Enforcement of the minimum wage law is entrusted to the Labor Inspectorate. The legislation also provides for 3 months maternity leave for household and shop assistants, as well as overtime pay, holiday pay, 2 weeks' vacation leave, and 14 days' sick leave per year. Wage levels in sectors not covered in the law are set under collective bargaining agreements and provide a decent living for workers and their families. The most poorly paid workers, including those working in minimum wage jobs, usually have secondary sources of support, often from their families.

The standard workweek in Trinidad and Tobago is 40 hours; the minimum wage law sets a 40-hour workweek for workers who fall within its jurisdiction, while collective bargaining agreements set the standards in other industrial and service sectors. Additional hours are considered overtime and are remunerated at a negotiated rate. Daily rest periods and paid annual leave form part of most employment agreements. There are no legal restrictions on overtime work.

Occupational health and safety is governed by the 1948 Factories and Ordinance Bill, which sets requirements for health and safety standards in certain industries and provides for inspections to monitor and enforce compliance. Workers who file complaints with the Ministry of Labor regarding illegal or hazardous working conditions are protected under the Industrial Relations Act of 1972 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. Government inspectors investigate complaints of hazardous working conditions.

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