U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1997 - Bahamas

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.


The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is a constitutional, parliamentary democracy and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II, the nominal head of state, is represented by an appointed Governor General. Prime Minister Hubert A. Ingraham's Free National Movement (FNM) has controlled the Government and Parliament since August 1992. The judiciary is independent. The police and the small Bahamas Defence Force answer to civilian authority and generally respect laws protecting human rights. However, there continue to be reports that police occasionally abuse detainees. The economy depends primarily on tourism, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the gross domestic product. Financial services, particularly offshore banking and trust management, are also a major source of revenue. While some citizens enjoy relatively high income levels, there is considerable underemployment and poverty. The official unemployment rate is over 11 percent, but unofficial estimates range up to twice that figure. Citizens enjoy a wide range of democratic freedoms and human rights. The principal human rights problems include reports of occasional police abuse of detainees, continuing harsh conditions at the only prison, lengthy pretrial detention and delays in trials, violence and discrimination against women, and violence against children.


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.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

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

The Constitution prohibits torture and other cruel and degrading treatment or punishment, but corporal punishment--abolished in 1984--was reinstated in 1991. Human rights monitors and members of the general public continued to express concern over instances of police abuse against criminal suspects. Many of the charges of abuse involved beatings in order to extract confessions. Police officials denied that there have been violations of defendants' rights. According to the officials, these rights are protected by the trial judge, who determines the admissibility of the defendant's statement as evidence at trial. The Police Complaints and Discipline Unit, which reports directly to senior police officials, is responsible for investigating allegations of police brutality. Conditions at Fox Hill, the only prison, continue to improve, but remain harsh and overcrowded. The men's prison, originally built in 1953 to house about 600 inmates, holds over 1,400 prisoners. The women's prison population is around 30, considerably less than full capacity. Male prisoners are crowded into poorly ventilated cells that generally lack running water and adequate sanitation facilities. There are no separate facilities for inmates being held on remand, although some are eventually segregated in a medium security wing after being processed through maximum security. Prison officials estimate that about 13 percent of the incoming prisoner population is infected with the HIV virus. Most prisoners lack beds, many sleep on concrete floors, and most are locked in their cells 23 hours per day. Facilities for women are less severe and do have running water. Organizations providing aid, counseling services, and religious instruction have regular access to inmates. In October migrants from the Dominican Republic rioted to protest poor conditions at the Carmichael Road Detention Center (see Section 2.d.). The Government provided funds to enable prison officials to make improvements in prison facilities and to continue prisoner rehabilitation programs. Modern training facilities for prison officers and staff are equipped with new computers and additional personnel. The prison offers some educational and literacy programs for prisoners, has added a new dental unit, and is building a prison workshop to provide some activity for inmates. Plans for critically needed new maximum security living space have not yet been implemented. Local and international human rights groups were able to visit the prison during the year.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention. The authorities conduct arrests openly and, when required, obtain judicially issued warrants. Serious cases, including those of suspected narcotics or firearms offenses, do not require warrants where probable cause exists. Arrested persons appear before a magistrate within 48 hours (or by the next business day for cases arising on weekends and holidays) to hear the charges against them. They may hire an attorney of their choice. The Government does not provide legal representation except to destitute suspects charged with capital crimes. Police sometimes deviate from prescribed procedures, however, and act arbitrarily. The Government respects the right to a judicial determination of the legality of arrests. The Bail Act prohibits bail for repeat offenders and those accused of certain violent crimes. Judges tend not to grant bail to foreign suspects, particularly on more serious offenses, since the authorities consider foreign offenders likely to flee if released on bail. Judges sometimes authorize cash bail for foreigners arrested on minor charges, but in practice, foreign suspects generally prefer to plead guilty and pay a fine rather than pursue their right to defend themselves, given possible delays in court cases and harsh conditions in the prison. Attorneys and other prisoner advocates continued to complain of excessive pretrial detention. The authorities detain illegal migrants, primarily Haitians and Cubans, at the Carmichael Road Detention Center until arrangements can be made for them to leave the country or they obtain legal status. Conditions at the detention center are Spartan, but most detainees do not remain for an excessively long period of time. The Government has earmarked $800,000 to renovate the center. In October migrants from the Dominican Republic rioted to protest poor conditions at the center. The rioters threw stones at the guards and set fire to the center?s mess hall. The authorities transferred the detainees who rioted to the prison. Illegal migrants convicted of crimes other than immigration violations are held at the prison and remain there for weeks or months, pending deportation after serving their sentences, unless they can arrange private means for their repatriation. Exile is illegal and is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The justice system derives from English common law. The judiciary, appointed by the Governor General on the advice, in most cases, of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, has always been independent. Magistrate's courts are the lowest level courts and only handle crimes with a maximum sentence of 5 years. Trial by jury is only available in the Supreme Court, which is the trial court that handles most major cases. Its decisions may be appealed to the Court of Appeal, with the Privy Council in London being the final court of appeal. Trials are fair and public. Defendants enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to appeal. Defendants can confront and question witnesses against them and present evidence on their own behalf. The judicial system is plagued by a large backlog of cases. In order to reduce the backlog, the Government has streamlined the appeals process, limited the availability of bail in serious cases, computerized court records, and added new judges, lay magistrates, and trained court reporters. Despite these measures to improve efficiency in the courts, complaints persist of excessive pretrial detention and delayed justice for victims. There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary entry, search, or seizure, and the Government generally respects these prohibitions in practice. The law usually requires a court order for entry into or search of a private residence, but a police inspector or more senior police official may authorize a search without a court order where probable cause to suspect a weapons violation exists. Such an official may also authorize the search of a person (that extends to the vehicle in which the person is traveling) without a court order, should probable cause exist to suspect drug possession.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Government respects the constitutional provision for the right of free expression, and the political opposition criticizes the Government freely and frequently. Three daily and several weekly newspapers, all privately owned, express a variety of views on issues of public interest, including varying degrees of criticism of the Government and its policies. Foreign newspapers and magazines are readily available. There is a government-run radio station and three privately owned radio broadcasters. The country's sole television station, the state-owned Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas, presents a variety of views, although opposition politicians claim with some justification that their views do not receive as extensive coverage as those of the Government. The Government does not restrict academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the rights to free assembly and association, and the authorities respect these rights in practice. The law permits private associations, but groups must obtain permits to hold public demonstrations. The authorities grant such permits almost without exception.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects 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. The Government cooperates with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government did not grant first asylum to any persons in 1997, but 11 requests were pending decision at the end of the year. There were no reports of forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution. Although the repatriation agreement between the Bahamas and Haiti expired at the end of 1995, the Government continued to repatriate illegal Haitian immigrants based on the terms of the agreement. The Bahamas signed a repatriation agreement with the Government of Cuba in January 1996, and since then the authorities have successfully repatriated illegal Cuban immigrants.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. The Bahamas is a constitutional, parliamentary democracy with two major political parties and general elections at least every 5 years. An elected Prime Minister and Parliament govern. The political process is open to all elements of society, and citizens 18 years of age and older are eligible to register and vote; voting is by secret ballot. The two principal political parties are the ruling Free National Movement and the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP). The PLP led the country for 6 years of internal self-government from 1967 to 1973 and held power from independence in 1973 until 1992. The FNM won general elections in 1992 and 1997. The FNM holds 35 of 40 seats in the House of Assembly, and the PLP holds 5. Both the ruling party and the opposition name members to the upper house--the Senate--in compliance with constitutional guidelines. Although it does pass legislation, the Senate is primarily a deliberative body that serves as a public forum to discuss national problems and policies to address them. The Parliament has six elected female members, including the speaker of the House, and five appointed female Senators, including the government leader in the Senate. The Foreign Minister is a woman, and women also head the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Training.

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

Individual human rights monitors and several local human rights groups, as well as representatives of international human rights organizations, operate freely, expressing their opinions and reporting their findings on alleged human rights violations without government restriction. The Government allows them broad access to institutions and individuals.

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

The Government generally respects in practice the constitutional provisions for individual rights and freedoms regardless of race, place of origin, political opinion, creed, or sex. However, both the Constitution and the law discriminate against women in several respects.


Domestic violence against women continued to be a serious problem, with many women seeking shelter at the private, but government-supported, crisis center in Nassau. The Government has established a nationwide toll-free hot line, with two trained volunteers on each of the inhabited islands on call to respond in the event of a crisis. The crisis center, with help from the Government, continued a public awareness campaign to highlight the problems of abuse and domestic violence. The Domestic Court, which deals exclusively with family issues such as spousal abuse, maintenance payments, and legal separation, continued to receive a high volume of cases. The court can and does impose various legal constraints to protect women from abusive spouses or companions. However, advocates for women?s rights see a need to improve the effectiveness of enforcement of orders of the Domestic Court. The Constitution discriminates against women by not providing them with the same right as men to transmit citizenship to their foreign-born spouses. Additionally, the law makes it easier for men with foreign spouses to confer citizenship on their children than for women with foreign spouses. Some inheritance laws also favor men over women. For example, when a person dies without a will, the estate passes to the oldest legitimate son, or in cases where there is no son, the closest legitimate male relative. Prominent women of all political persuasions continue to push for an amendment to the Constitution and related laws to redress this situation. Women participate fully in society and are well represented in the business and professional sectors, as well as in the judiciary and government (see Section 3). The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Janet Bostwick, also directs the Bahamian Bureau of Women's Affairs, which is within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a woman.


The Government places priority on maintaining adequate expenditures for child welfare and education. However, child abuse and neglect remain serious problems. The law requires that anyone having contact with a child they believe to be sexually abused must report their suspicion to the police. The same reporting requirement does not apply to cases of physical abuse, which nonetheless are high. The police refer reported cases of sexual and physical abuse to the Department of Social Services, which investigates them and can bring criminal charges against perpetrators. The Department may remove children from abusive situations if the court deems it necessary.

People With Disabilities

Although the 1973 National Building Code mandates certain accommodations for the physically disabled in new public buildings, the authorities rarely enforce this part of the code. The code fails to mandate accommodation in new private buildings, however, which often lack accessibility as well. The Disability Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Social Development and National Insurance works with the Bahamas Council for Disability, an umbrella organization for groups offering services for the disabled, to provide a coordinated public and private sector approach to the needs of the disabled. A mix of government and private residential and nonresidential institutions provide a range of education, training, counseling, and job placement services for both physically and mentally disabled adults and children. The country is participating in an International Labor Organization pilot program to provide specialized training to persons who provide services to the disabled.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

An estimated 30,000 Haitians reside in the Bahamas legally and productively, but social, economic and political sensitivities remain. Members of the Haitian community reported that some police and immigration officials have taken Haitians off the streets into custody before allowing them a chance to produce their residency permits. Haitians also complained that officials sometimes came to their residences late at night, a violation of the terms of the expired Bahamas-Haiti repatriation agreement. These alleged violations are difficult to confirm, but some similar past complaints resulted in procedural changes by the authorities.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides that labor unions have the right of free assembly and association. Private sector and most public sector workers may form or join unions without prior approval. Members of the police force, defense force, fire brigade, and prison guards may not organize or join unions. Workers exercise the right of association extensively, with almost one-quarter of the work force (and one-half the workers in the important hotel industry) belonging to unions. Three major umbrella labor organizations, the National Workers Council of Trade Unions and Associations, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and the National Congress of Trade Unions, along with individual labor unions, all function independent of government or political party control. The Industrial Relations Act requires that, before a strike begins, a simple majority of a union's membership must vote in favor of a motion to strike. The Department of Labor must supervise the vote. Unions instituted work stoppages at the Nassau International Airport and at a major hotel construction site in Nassau during the year. In order to resolve trade disputes more quickly, the Industrial Relations Act was amended in 1996 to establish an industrial tribunal. According to the act, labor disputes are first filed with the Ministry of Labor and then if not resolved, are turned over to the tribunal. The tribunal follows normal court procedures for the admission of evidence, direct examination, and cross examination. The tribunal's decision is final and is only appealable in court on a strict question of law. Some employers complain that the industrial tribunal is unfairly biased in favor of employees. All labor unions have the right to maintain affiliations with international trade union organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Workers freely exercise their right to organize and participate in collective bargaining, which the law protects. Unions and employers negotiate wage rates without government interference. The Constitution and the Industrial Relations Act prohibit antiunion discrimination by employers. The act requires employers to recognize trade unions, and it requires the reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. Employers may dismiss workers in accordance with applicable contracts, which generally require some severance pay. The Government enforces labor laws and regulations uniformly throughout the country. There are two small free trade zones. Labor law and practice in these zones do not differ from those in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution prohibits forced or compulsory labor by all persons, including children, and such labor does not exist in practice.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 for industrial work, work during school hours, or work at night. There is no legal minimum age for employment in other sectors, and some children work part time in light industry and service jobs. The constitutional prohibition of forced and compulsory labor is respected in practice.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Fair Labor Standards Act limits the regular workweek to 48 hours and provides for one 24-hour rest period. The act requires overtime payment (time and a half) for hours beyond the standard. The act permits the creation of a Wages Council to recommend the setting of a minimum wage, but the Government has never established such a council or a general minimum wage. However, in 1996 the Government established a specific minimum wage of $4.12 per hour for all hourly and temporary workers throughout the public sector. The Ministry of Labor, responsible for enforcing labor laws, has a team of inspectors who conduct on-site visits to enforce occupational health and safety standards and investigate employee concerns and complaints, but inspections occur only infrequently. The Ministry normally announces inspection visits in advance, and employers generally cooperate with inspectors to implement safety standards. The national insurance program compensates workers for work-related injuries. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to find suitable alternative employment for employees injured on the job but still able to work. The law does not provide a right for workers to absent themselves from dangerous work situations without jeopardy to continued employment.

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